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J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 2001 Feb;24(2):92-100.

Patient characteristics and physicians' practice activities for patients with chronic low back pain: a practice-based study of primary care and chiropractic physicians.

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Western States Chiropractic College, Division of Research, Center for Outcomes Studies, Portland, Ore 97230, USA.



Chronic low back pain sufferers are among those who account for the greatest usage of health care resources. Primary care medical (MD) physicians and chiropractic (DC) physicians treat most of these patients.


To study patient characteristics and physician practice activities for patients with chronic low back pain treated by DC physicians and MD physicians.


A longitudinal, practice-based observational study was undertaken in 14 general practice and 51 DC community-based clinics. A total of 2945 consecutive patients with ambulatory low back pain of mechanical origin were enrolled; 835 patients were in the chronic subgroup. Patients were followed for 12 months. Data were obtained on all of the following: patient demographics, health status, and psychosocial characteristics; history, duration, and severity of low back pain and disability; physicians' practice activities; and low back complaint status at 1 year.


Patients treated by MD physicians were younger and had lower incomes; their care was more often paid for by a third party; their baseline pain and disability were slightly greater. In addition, patients treated by MD physicians had one fourth as many visits as patients treated by DC physicians. Utilization of imaging procedures by enrolling physicians was equivalent for the two provider groups. Medications were prescribed for 80% of the patients enrolled by MD physicians; spinal manipulation was administered to 84% of patients enrolled by DC physicians. Physical modalities, self-care education, exercise, and postural advice characterized low back pain management in both provider groups. Patients' care-seeking was not exclusive to one provider type. Most patients experienced recurrences (patients treated by MD physicians, 59.3%; patients treated by DC physicians, 76.4%); 34.1% of patients treated by MD physicians and 12.7% of patients treated by DC physicians reported 12 months of continuous pain. Only 6.7% of patients treated by MD physicians and 10.9% of patients treated by DC physicians reported 1 resolved episode during the year.


Differences in sociodemographics, present pain intensity, and functional disability may distinguish patients with chronic low back pain seeking care from primary care medical physicians from those seeking care from DC physicians. Although the primary treatment modality differs, the practice activities of MD physicians and DC physicians have much in common. Long-term evaluation suggests that chronic back pain is persistent and difficult to treat for both provider types.

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