BACKGROUND: Low back pain (LBP) is the leading cause of disability globally. It generates considerable direct costs (healthcare) and indirect costs (lost productivity). The many available treatments for LBP include exercise therapy, which is practised extensively worldwide.
OBJECTIVES: To evaluate the benefits and harms of exercise therapy for acute non-specific low back pain in adults compared to sham/placebo treatment or no treatment at short-term, intermediate-term, and long-term follow-up.
SEARCH METHODS: This is an update of a Cochrane Review first published in 2005. We conducted an updated search for randomised controlled trials (RCTs) in CENTRAL, MEDLINE, Embase, four other databases, and two trial registers. We screened the reference lists of all included studies and relevant systematic reviews published since 2004.
SELECTION CRITERIA: We included RCTs that examined the effects of exercise therapy on non-specific LBP lasting six weeks or less in adults. Major outcomes for this review were pain, functional status, and perceived recovery. Minor outcomes were return to work, health-related quality of life, and adverse events. Our main comparisons were exercise therapy versus sham/placebo treatment and exercise therapy versus no treatment.
DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: We used standard Cochrane methods. We evaluated outcomes at short-term follow-up (time point within three months and closest to six weeks after randomisation; main follow-up), intermediate-term follow-up (between nine months and closest to six months), and long-term follow-up (after nine months and closest to 12 months); and we used GRADE to assess the certainty of the evidence for each outcome.
MAIN RESULTS: We included 23 studies (13 from the previous review, 10 new studies) that involved 2674 participants and provided data for 2637 participants. Three small studies are awaiting classification, and four eligible studies are ongoing. Included studies were conducted in Europe (N = 9), the Asia-Pacific region (N = 9), and North America (N = 5); and most took place in a primary care setting (N = 12), secondary care setting (N = 6), or both (N = 1). In most studies, the population was middle-aged and included men and women. We judged 10 studies (43%) at low risk of bias with regard to sequence generation and allocation concealment. Blinding is not feasible in exercise therapy, introducing performance and detection bias. There is very low-certainty evidence that exercise therapy compared with sham/placebo treatment has no clinically relevant effect on pain scores in the short term (mean difference (MD) -0.80, 95% confidence interval (CI) -5.79 to 4.19; 1 study, 299 participants). The absolute difference was 1% less pain (95% CI 4% more to 6% less), and the relative difference was 4% less pain (95% CI 20% more to 28% less). The mean pain score was 20.1 (standard deviation (SD) 21) for the intervention group and 20.9 (SD 23) for the control group. There is very low-certainty evidence that exercise therapy compared with sham/placebo treatment has no clinically relevant effect on functional status scores in the short term (MD 2.00, 95% CI -2.20 to 6.20; 1 study, 299 participants). The absolute difference was 2% worse functional status (95% CI 2% better to 6% worse), and the relative difference was 15% worse (95% CI 17% better to 47% worse). The mean functional status score was 15.3 (SD 19) for the intervention group and 13.3 (SD 18) for the control group. We downgraded the certainty of the evidence for pain and functional status by one level for risk of bias and by two levels for imprecision (only one study with fewer than 400 participants). There is very low-certainty evidence that exercise therapy compared with no treatment has no clinically relevant effect on pain or functional status in the short term (2 studies, 157 participants). We downgraded the certainty of the evidence by two levels for imprecision and by one level for inconsistency. One study associated exercise with small benefits and the other found no differences. The first study was conducted in an occupational healthcare centre, where participants received one exercise therapy session. The other study was conducted in secondary and tertiary care settings, where participants received treatment three times per week for six weeks. We did not pool data from these studies owing to considerable clinical heterogeneity. In two studies, there were no reported adverse events. One study reported adverse events unrelated to exercise therapy. The remaining studies did not report whether any adverse events had occurred. Owing to insufficient reporting of adverse events, we were unable to reach any conclusions on the safety or harms related to exercise therapy.
AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: Exercise therapy compared to sham/placebo treatment may have no clinically relevant effect on pain or functional status in the short term in people with acute non-specific LBP, but the evidence is very uncertain. Exercise therapy compared to no treatment may have no clinically relevant effect on pain or functional status in the short term in people with acute non-specific LBP, but the evidence is very uncertain. We downgraded the certainty of the evidence to very low for inconsistency, risk of bias concerns, and imprecision (few participants).
|Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation|
|Special Interest - Pain -- Physician|
|Family Medicine (FM)/General Practice (GP)|
|General Internal Medicine-Primary Care(US)|
This information is important for its largely null findings and its contradiction of many patients' experiences (although this could be either placebo or natural course of treatment).
Low-back pain is a common condition and exercise therapy can be provided in primary care, so this is a relevant subject for primary care physicians. The article, however, is more relevant for academic considerations to inform future research than it is to change current practice.