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Br J Sports Med. 2018 Jun 6. pii: bjsports-2017-098742. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2017-098742. [Epub ahead of print]

Defining adherence to therapeutic exercise for musculoskeletal pain: a systematic review.

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Research Institute for Primary Care and Health Sciences, Keele University, Staffordshire, UK.
Warwick Research in Nursing, Warwick Medical School, Warwick University, Coventry, UK.



To establish the meaning of the term 'adherence' (including conceptual and measurement definitions) in the context of therapeutic exercise (TE) for musculoskeletal (MSK) pain.


Systematic review using a search strategy including terms for: adherence, TE and MSK pain. Identified studies were independently screened for inclusion by two researchers. Two independent researchers extracted data on: study type; MSK pain population; type of TE used; definitions, parameters, measurement methods and values of adherence.


Seven electronic databases were searched from inception to December 2016.


Any study type featuring TE for adults with MSK pain and containing a definition of adherence, or a description of how adherence was measured.


459 studies were identified and 86 were included in the review. Most were prospective cohort studies and featured back and/or neck pain. Strengthening and stretching were the most common types of TE. A clearly identifiable definition of adherence was provided in 40% of the studies, with 12% using the same definition. Exercise frequency was the most commonly measured parameter of adherence, with self-report logs the most common measurement method. The most common value range used to determine satisfactory adherence was 80%-99% of the recommended exercise dose.


No single definition of adherence to TE was apparent. We found no definition of adherence that specifically related to TE for MSK pain or described the dimensions of TE that should be measured. We recommend conceptualising adherence to TE for MSK pain from the perspective of all relevant stakeholders.


exercise; exercise rehabilitation

Conflict of interest statement

Competing interests: None declared.

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