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J Gen Intern Med. 1988 May-Jun;3(3):230-8.

Cancer as a cause of back pain: frequency, clinical presentation, and diagnostic strategies.

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Department of Medicine, The University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio.


Back pain is very common. Rarely, it may be the first manifestation of cancer. Although many advocate selective use of laboratory and x-ray tests for back pain patients, the early detection of cancer may be an important reason to obtain such tests. To develop a diagnostic approach that would identify malignancies while remaining parsimonious, the authors evaluated 1,975 walk-in patients with a chief complaint of back pain. Thirteen patients (0.66%) proved to have underlying cancer. Findings significantly associated with underlying cancer (p less than 0.05) were: age greater than or equal to 50 years, previous history of cancer, duration of pain greater than 1 month, failure to improve with conservative therapy, elevated erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR), and anemia. Combining historical features and ESR results led to an algorithm that would have limited x-ray utilization to just 22% of subjects while recommending an x-ray for every cancer patient. It would further suggest which patients with negative x-ray findings require further work-up.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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