Trajectories of acute low back pain: a latent class
Aron S. Downie
*, Mark J. Hancock
, Magdalena Rzewuska
, Christopher M. Williams
Chung-Wei Christine Lin
, Christopher G. Maher
Characterising the clinical course of back pain by mean pain scores over time may not adequately reflect the complexity of the clinical
course of acute low back pain. We analysed pain scores over 12 weeks for 1585 patients with acute low back pain presenting to
primary care to identify distinct pain trajectory groups and baseline patient characteristics associated with membership ofeach cluster.
This was a secondary analysis of the PACE trial that evaluated paracetamol for acute low back pain. Latent class growth analysis
determined a 5 cluster model, which comprised 567 (35.8%) patients who recovered by week 2 (cluster 1, rapid pain recovery); 543
(34.3%) patients who recovered by week 12 (cluster 2, pain recovery by week 12);222 (14.0%) patients whosepain reduced but did not
recover (cluster 3, incomplete pain recovery); 167 (10.5%) patients whose pain initially decreased but then increased by week 12
(cluster 4, fluctuating pain); and 86 (5.4%) patients who experienced high-level pain for the whole 12 weeks (cluster 5, persistent high
pain). Patients with longer pain duration were more likely to experience delayed recovery or nonrecovery. Belief in greater risk of
persistence was associated with nonrecovery, but not delayed recovery. Higher pain intensity, longer duration, and workers’
compensation were associated with persistent high pain, whereas older age and increased number of episodes were associated with
fluctuating pain. Identification of discrete pain trajectory groups offers the potential to better manage acute low back pain.
Keywords: Latent class growth analysis, Low back pain, Primary care, Trajectory, Clinical course
Low back pain (LBP) is a major cause of disability
and is an
extremely common condition presenting to primary care.
Most guidelines for acute LBP advise a minimal treatment
approach on the premise that the clinical course is typically
When patients are considered as a group, this
optimistic view seems consistent with the research evidence.
For example, a systematic review of 15 cohort studies reported
pooled mean pain scores, on a 0 to 100 scale of 52, 23, 12, and 6
at baseline, 6, 12, and 52 weeks follow-up, respectively.
However, the review also noted a moderate degree of person-to-
person variability with the SD of pain and disability outcomes
typically approximately 20 points on a 0 to 100 scale at all follow-up
The large variability in outcomes at each time point
suggests that it may be overly simplistic to describe the clinical
course of LBP by only considering the group mean over time.
There has been recent interest in studying the clinical course of
individual patients with LBP.
For example, Dunn et al.
studied 342 patients from primary care with back pain over 1 year
using latent class analysis. The method identified 4 clusters that
differed across pain status and impact, disability, and psycholog-
ical characteristics. However, the study provided little detail about
the early pain course and enrolled a mixed cohort of patients who
may not adequately describe the acute pain experience. Recently,
Kongsted et al.
studied 1082 patients from primary care by text
messagingusing latent class analysis to reveal clusters of LBP. The
study also enrolled a mixed cohort of patients with more than half
reporting leg pain and a low recovery rate at 12 weeks (;54%)
when compared with other studies.
The authors comment
that more appropriate clustering techniques may exist for
longitudinal data, such as latent class growth analysis (LCGA).
Given that the group level course of acute and chronic LBP is quite
different, it is likely that pain trajectory groupings identified in
chronic and mixed duration samples are not the same as those in
acute LBP. To date, no research has studied individual pain
trajectories exclusively in acute LBP using data from a large
inception cohort. Understanding the patient traits that are
associated with each pain trajectory group could advance
understanding of the mechanism(s) underlying the trajectories
and also assist in developing targeted therapies for each trajectory.
The aim of this study was to identify pain trajectory groups for
patients with acute LBP presenting to primary care and then to
explore individual characteristics that influenced group member-
ship. We hypothesized that for each trajectory group identified,
membership would be associated with clinical and demographic
characteristics measured at baseline.
Our interest was in the trajectories of patients’ pain during the
course of an episode of acute LBP. We used statistical procedures
Sponsorships or competing interests that may be relevant to content are disclosed
at the end of this article.
George Institute for Global Health, University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia,
Department of Chiropractic, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Macquarie
University, Sydney, Australia,
Department of Health Professions, Faculty of
Medicine and Health Sciences, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia
*Corresponding author. Address: George Institute for Global Health, GPO Box
5389, Sydney NSW 2001, Australia. Tel.: 161 2 9657 0382; fax: 161 2 9657 0301.
E-mail address: email@example.com (A. S. Downie).
PAIN 157 (2016) 225–234
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2015 by the International Association for the Study of Pain. Unauthorized reproduction of this article is prohibited.
to (1) identify these trajectories and (2) characterise membership of
each trajectory using baseline patient characteristics. The data
were taken from a previous trial.
2.1. Data source
This is a secondary analysis of the PACE trial,
controlled trial of paracetamol for acute LBP. In brief, 235 primary
care clinicians screened 4606 consecutive patients who sought
care for an episode of acute LBP (,6 weeks duration and of at
least moderate-intensity pain as defined by item 7 of the Short
Form Health Survey, SF-36). A total of 1652 subjects were
recruited from across Sydney, Australia, during 2009 to 2012,
and pain outcomes were measured regularly over the following 12
weeks. There was no difference found in pain (or other) outcomes
for those receiving paracetamol vs placebo. Baseline information
was recorded by research staff through telephone interview and
occurred within 48 hours after the initial primary care consultation,
before study entry and randomization. Follow-up data at 1, 2, 4,
and 12 weeks were contemporaneously recorded into a booklet
by the subject and then transcribed through a telephone interview
with research staff or directly into an online database by the
A detailed description of the trial methods can be found
in the PACE study protocol
and statistical analysis plan.
2.2. Analysed participant characteristics
Our primary outcome was pain intensity numerical rating scale
(NRS) values, which were collected at 1, 2, 4, and 12 weeks. In
addition, baseline demographic (age, sex, and compensation
status) and clinical data (pain level, duration and referral beyond
knee, number of previous episodes, days of reduced activity,
perceived risk of persistence, sleep quality, quality of life, and
disability) were extracted from the PACE data set.
2.3. Statistical analysis
The analysis assumed that there exist a number of distinct and
unobserved trajectory groups for acute LBP that are revealed by
the patterns of recorded pain level data across 5 time points. The
data analysis comprised 3 steps. First, a LCGA model for ordinal
data was established to identify the minimum number of clusters
that explained variation in the data (step 1). Second, each subject
was assigned to one of the identified clusters (step 2).
multinomial logistic regression was applied to assess the
relationship between cluster membership and baseline charac-
teristics (step 3).
Internal (bootstrap) validation of the regression
model was undertaken.
2.3.1. Latent class growth analysis
Pain course was modeled over time using pain scores at 5 time
points (baseline, week 1, 2, 4, and 12). A requirement of LCGA is
normal distribution of the dependent variable.
distribution was non-normal at each time point. The solution was
to trichotomize pain scores analogous to the method described by
with cut points used previously.
resulted in “pain recovery” (NRS #1); “low–moderate pain” (NRS
2-4); and “high pain” (NRS $5) strata. Latent class growth analysis
uses maximum likelihoodto assign subjects to a cluster, so missing
values are handled without need for imputation. We excluded
subjects missing greater than 2 of the 5 time points. Up to an
8-cluster solution was considered, with the optimum number of
clusters determined using goodness of fit criteria, namely, Akaike’s
information criterion (AIC); Bayesian information criterion (BIC); and
the bootstrap likelihood ratio test.
included high entropy
and high average posterior probability of
belonging to each cluster
; a minimum cluster size of 5%; and
a distinctive pain course for each trajectory.
2.3.2. Multinomial logistic regression analysis
After pain trajectories and subject membership were determined,
multivariate multinomial logistic regression analysis was used to
determine the characteristics of each cluster with the strength of the
relationship determined using proportional classification for all
The risk of belonging to each cluster for a given
characteristic was compared to the base cluster (defined by the
cluster with most rapid recovery) and expressed as a relative risk
Baseline factors considered important to include in
the multivariate regression were those hypothesised to influence
cluster membership and were selected a priori (Table 1). Contin-
uous baseline variables were expressed as risk per SD increase.
Non-normally distributed count and continuous variables were
dichotomized. The variables’ duration of current episode,number of
previous episodes,andquality of sleep were dichotomized using
Testing for collinearity was performed with
tolerance of ,0.1 and variance inflation factor (VIF) #0.2 or $5.0
indicating possible collinearity.
Full and reduced unconditional
model predictive efficiency was determined by goodness of fit
indices, mainly AIC,
with the lowest score (AIC
better fitting model. Reduced models excluded all combinations of
the 5 least significant variables found on univariate analysis.
The robustness of the predictors in the multinomial logistic
regression model was tested using Monte Carlo modelling (non-
The study population parameters (estimates
of relative risk per cluster pair) were compared to 1000 bootstrap
replications of the study data.
The threshold for nonignorable
bias was set at 0.25 3SE of the bootstrap sample.
version 13.1 for Mac OS (Stata Corp, College Station, TX) was used
to analyse model collinearity, and Mplus version 7.31 (Muth´en &
Muth ´en, Los Angeles, CA) was used to generate the LCGA,
multivariate regression, and bootstrap validation models.
3.1. Sample characteristics
Overall, of the 1652 individuals enrolled in PACE, 4.1% (n 567)
were excluded from this study on the basis of missing greater than
2 of 5 pain scores. Pain scores were then available for the
remaining 95.9% (n 51585) of subjects at baseline. Of these,
98.9% (n 51568), 99.1% (n 51570), 97.4% (n 51543), and
96.0% (n 51522) were recorded for weeks 1, 2, 4, and 12,
respectively. Table 2 displays baseline characteristics for included
subjects stratified by cluster for the final 5-cluster LCGA model.
3.2. Latent class growth analysis (selection of ideal number
The 3-cluster to 8-cluster models were tested using goodness of
fit indices to determine the best model and are displayed in
Table 3. The rate of change in log likelihood diminished rapidly
after the 5-cluster model (22LL difference 5498.9, 87.7, 121.5,
44.5, 25.6, and 23.6 for 3-8 cluster models, respectively),
whereas the bootstrap likelihood ratio test indicated up to an
8-cluster model was possible (Pvalue approached nonsignifi-
cance, P50.033). Fit statistics reached minima for the 8-cluster
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511,488) and 6-cluster (BIC
respectively. Entropy was adequate for all solutions (0.79, 0.79,
0.78, 0.75, 0.77, and 0.77 for 3-cluster to 8-cluster models,
respectively). Given these results, the 4-cluster to 6-cluster
models warranted further (pragmatic) evaluation.
For each of the 4-cluster to 6-cluster models, the lowest
average posterior probabilities were 0.86, 0.82, and 0.74, with
minimum cluster membership of 11.6%, 5.4%, and 4.2%,
respectively. Table 4 details descriptors for the 4-cluster to 6-
cluster models to aid in assessment of model distinctiveness. All
models displayed 1 stable rapid recovery cluster. There was
variation in the proportion of delayed, incomplete, persistent high,
and fluctuating pain recovery clusters with decreasing member-
ship at higher levels of pain persistence as successive clusters
were added. For example, the 5-cluster model was the first to
identify persistent high pain with 86 subjects, a potentially
important subgroup. Beyond the 5-cluster model, no increase
in clinically distinct subgroups was identified. For example, the
6-cluster model divided the number of incomplete recovery
clusters into 2, which added unnecessary complexity. Therefore,
the 5-cluster model was chosen and satisfied efficiency,
parsimony, and its ability to identify 5 discrete pain courses.
The 5-cluster model comprised cluster 1, rapid pain recovery
(n 5567; 35.8%); cluster 2, pain recovery by week 12 (n 5543;
34.3%); cluster 3, incomplete pain recovery (n 5222; 14.0%);
cluster 4, fluctuating pain (n 5167; 10.5%); and cluster 5, persistent
high pain (n 586; 5.4%). Figure 1 displays the proportion of
subjects reporting none, low–moderate, or high pain at each time
point for each cluster in the 5-cluster LCGA model. Figure 2
displays the mean pain course for the 5-cluster LCGA model.
Cluster 1 (rapid pain recovery) was characterized by an early
rapid decrease in the proportion of subjects who reported any
pain over the first 4 weeks (39%, 0%, and 0% at weeks 1, 2, and
4). At week 12, all subjects reported pain recovery. Subjects in
cluster 1 reported a large decrease in their mean pain score over
the first 2 weeks (25.7; SD 51.5).
Cluster 2 (pain recovery by week 12) was characterized by
a decrease in the proportion of subjects who reported any pain
over the first 4 weeks (93%, 83%, and 33% at weeks 1, 2, and 4).
By week 12, all subjects had pain recovery. Subjects in cluster 2
Baseline characteristics for each cluster in the 5-cluster model.
Cluster 1: rapid
Cluster 2: recovery
by week 12
Cluster 5: persistent
Taking paracetamol (%) 1056 (66.6) 366/567 (64.6) 365/543 (67.2) 155/222 (69.8) 111/167 (66.5) 59/86 (68.6)
Age (y) 45.15 (15.76) 43.48 (14.94) 44.94 (16.20) 45.21 (16.21) 50.07 (15.49) 47.67 (15.47)
Female (%) 741 (46.7) 260/563 (46.2) 243/542 (44.8) 113/222 (50.1) 83/167 (49.7) 42/85 (49.4)
Compensable (%) 111 (7.0) 33/566 (5.8) 43/541 (7.9) 13/222 (5.9) 11/167 (6.6) 11/85 (12.9)
Baseline pain 6.25 (1.89) 5.93 (1.99) 6.28 (1.86) 7.11 (1.39) 5.72 (1.93) 6.90 (1.51)
Back pain days 9.84 (9.92) 7.06 (8.15) 9.55 (9.69) 12.87 (10.35) 13.15 (11.5) 15.73 (11.2)
Pain beyond knee (%) 309 (19.5) 74/567 (13.1) 104/541 (19.2) 69/221 (31.1) 36/165 (21.8) 26/86 (30.2)
Previous episodes 6.85 (15.43) 5.52 (13.13) 6.17 (13.44) 7.36 (16.85) 10.07 (15.86) 11.83 (25.89)
Days of reduced activity 3.60 (5.9) 2.36 (3.62) 3.67 (5.55) 5.5 (8.03) 4.51 (7.74) 4.97 (7.93)
Risk of persistence 4.50 (2.7) 3.83 (2.77) 4.34 (2.71) 5.74 (2.53) 5.30 (2.61) 6.05 (2.47)
Sleep quality 1.50 (0.8) 1.43 (0.77) 1.49 (0.78) 1.71 (0.79) 1.56 (0.82) 1.76 (0.84)
Quality of life—physical 42.56 (10.14) 45.37 (9.74) 42.41 (9.7) 38.77 (10.38) 39.5 (9.27) 36.73 (10.01)
Quality of life—mental 44.56 (7.95) 46.06 (7.45) 45.09 (7.85) 42.03 (8.45) 43.33 (7.42) 39.47 (8.01)
Disability 13.03 (5.48) 12.43 (5.64) 13.14 (5.36) 14.25 (5.3) 12.63 (5.48) 14.08 (5.12)
Data are mean (SD) or number (%).
Baseline predictor variables considered for multinomial logistic regression.
Baseline measure Mean (SD) or number (%) Recoded for regression analysis
Taking paracetamol 1056/1585 (66.6%)
Age 45.15 (15.75)
Female 741/1585 (46.80%)
Currently on workers’ compensation 111/1585 (7.00%)
Baseline pain (NRS) 6.25 (1.89)
Duration of low back pain at baseline (d) 9.84 (9.92) 0 if score #5; 1 if score .5 (median split)
Pain referral beyond knee 309 (19.5%)
Number of previous episodes 6.85 (15.14) 0 if score #1; 1 if score .1 (median split)
Risk that pain may become persistent 4.55 (2.79)
Quality of sleep 1.52 (0.79) 0 if score 0 and 1; 1 if score 2 and 3 (median split)
SF12v2 (PCS) 42.43 (10.15) 100-score
SF12v2 (MCS) 44.57 (7.95) 100-score
Duration of reduced activity (d) 3.62 (5.93)
RMDQ 13.04 (5.48)
Taking paracetamol—as required dosing or time contingent group. Baseline pain—numerical rating scale (NRS), scored from 0 (no pain) to 10 (worst possible pain). Risk of persistence “In your view, how large is the risk that
your current pain may become persistent?” scored from 0 (no risk) to 10 (very large risk). Sleep quality “During the past week, how would you rate your sleep quality overall?”, item 6 Pittsburgh sleep quality index, scored 0 (very
good), 1 (fairly good), 2 (fairly bad), or 3 (very bad). Quality of Life—physical (PCS) and mental (MCS) components from SF12v2; population mean 550 and SD 510. Duration (days) of reduced activity “In relation to the current
episode, on how many days did back or leg pain force you to cut down on the things you usually do, for more than half a day?” Disability—Roland Morris Disability Questionnaire (RMDQ), scored from 0 (no disability) to 24 (high
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2015 by the International Association for the Study of Pain. Unauthorized reproduction of this article is prohibited.
reported a moderate decrease in mean pain over the first 2 weeks
(23.3; SD 50.1).
Cluster 3 (incomplete pain recovery)wascharacterizedby
over 12 weeks (95%, 82%, 38%, and 4% at weeks 1, 2, 4, and 12)
with a reciprocal increase in the proportion of low–moderate pain
over the same period (5%, 18%, 61%, and 77%). At week 12, the
LCGA model classified 19% (n 541) of subjects who reported no
pain at week 12 into this cluster. This was due to classification based
on subjects’ trajectory regardless ofrecoverystatus(unconditional
LCGA model). Subjects in cluster 3 reported only a small decrease in
mean pain over the first 2 weeks (21.5; SD 50.3).
Cluster 4 (fluctuating pain) was characterized by a diminishing
proportion of subjects who reported any pain over the first 4 weeks
(93%, 80%, and 66% at weeks 1, 2, and 4), followed by all subjects
reporting increased pain at week 12. At week 12, no subject had
pain recovery. Mean pain course over the first 4 weeks for subjects
classified with fluctuating pain was similar to those classified with
pain recovery by week 12, but with an increase in mean pain score
between week 4 and week 12 (1.9; SD 50.5).
Cluster 5 (persistent high pain) was comprised entirely subjects
who reported high pain over the first 4 weeks (98%, 100%, and
100% at weeks 1, 2, and 4). At week 12, all subjects continued to
report high pain. Subjects in cluster 5 reported negligible change
in mean pain scores over the first 2 weeks (0.0; SD 50.2), with
only marginal decrease in mean pain over the whole study period
(20.4; SD 50.2).
3.3. Multinomial logistic regression
Multivariate multinomial logistic regression models compared
baseline characteristics of all subjects between clusters, with
rapid pain recovery (cluster 1) as a reference. There was low
chance of collinearity (tolerance range 50.62-0.96; mean VIF 5
1.28) when all variables were included. The AIC statistic that
evaluated model best fit achieved a minimum value after removal
of the variables “trial allocation,” “quality of sleep,” and “disability”
52894) compared with the full model (AIC 52913).
Change in regression coefficients between the reduced and full
models ranged from 0% (age) to 5.5% (quality of life physical
subscale). Given the low chance of collinearity and marginal
difference in magnitude of regression coefficients between full
and reduced models, we were able to retain all a priori
hypothesized predictors. The final model included baseline
measures of age, sex, compensation status, pain (intensity,
duration, number of previous episodes, and pain beyond the
knee), duration of reduced activity, perceived risk of persistence,
quality of sleep, quality of life, disability, and trial group allocation.
Internal validation of the regression model, which used the
difference in parameter estimates (bias) between the study
sample and average of 1000 bootstrap samples for all covariates
in each cluster pair, was of lesser magnitude than the threshold
set for nonignorable bias (equal to 0.25 3SE of bootstrap
Compared to the study sample, the risk ratio for all
variables in the bootstrap sample was in the same direction and of
similar magnitude. Bootstrapping had the effect of changing
some marginally nonsignificant variables in the original analyses
to significant in the bootstrapped analyses but did not result in
important changes in the magnitude of the relative risk. For
example, when measuring relative risk of pain recovery by week
12 compared to rapid pain recovery, the relative risk for the
variable “previous episodes” changed from 1.29 (95% confi-
dence interval [CI], 0.89-1.86) in the original analyses to 1.30
(95% CI, 1.02-1.67) in the bootstrapped analyses.
3.4. Risk of belonging to delayed pain recovery clusters
compared with rapid pain recovery
Figure 3 reveals the relative risk of belonging to each cluster
compared to rapid pain recovery.
Relative risk ratios for continuous variables are expressed per
SD increase in the predictor variable.
Goodness of fit criteria for 3-cluster to 8-cluster models. Shaded region indicates models considered for pragmatic evaluation.
Goodness of fit criteria Model
3-cluster 4-cluster 5-cluster 6-cluster 7-cluster 8-cluster
Sequential model comparison (K11 cluster vs
3 vs 2 4 vs 3 5 vs 4 6 vs 5 7 vs 6 8 vs 7
LL (K11) 25859.5 25815.6 25759.1 25736.9 25724.1 25712.3
22LL difference 498.9 87.7 121.5 44.5 25.6 23.6
BLRT 22LL diff (Pvalue) — ,0.001 ,0.001 ,0.001 ,0.001 0.033
AIC 11743.0 11663.3 11558.3 11521.8 11504.2 11488.7
BIC 11807.4 11749.2 11665.7 11650.7 11654.5 11660.5
Entropy 0.789 0.789 0.777 0.751 0.771 0.772
22LL difference, change in LL as each additional cluster is added; AIC, Akaike’s information criterion; BIC, Bayesian information criterion; BLRT 22LL diff (Pvalue), bootstrap likelihood ratio test for (k21) vs k-class model
(P.0.05 suggests no further improvement in model fit by adding another cluster); Entropy, the ability of the model to provide well-separated clusters (range: 0-1 with higher values superior); LL, log-likelihood.
Trajectory descriptors for the 4-cluster to 6-cluster solutions.
4-cluster model* 5-cluster model 6-cluster model
Cluster 1 36% rapid pain recovery 36% rapid pain recovery 36% rapid pain recovery
Cluster 2 39% pain recovery by week 12 34% pain recovery by week 12 20% pain recovery by week 4
Cluster 3 14% persistent pain 14% incomplete recovery 18% incomplete recovery type I
Cluster 4 12% fluctuating pain 11% fluctuating pain 17% incomplete recovery type II
Cluster 5 5% persistent high pain 5% persistent high pain
Cluster 6 4% fluctuating pain
* Cluster (column) membership does not sum to 100% because of rounding.
228 A.S. Downie et al.·157 (2016) 225–234 PAIN
3.4.1. Comparison of pain recovery by week 12 (cluster 2)
with rapid pain recovery (cluster 1)
Subjects with greater pain duration were 1.81 times more likely
(95% CI, 1.17-2.78) to recover by week 12 than have rapid pain
recovery. Subjects on workers’ compensation were 2.06 times
more likely (95% CI, 1.03-4.14) to recover by week 12 than have
rapid pain recovery.
3.4.2. Comparison of incomplete recovery (cluster 3) with
rapid pain recovery (cluster 1)
Subjects with higher baseline pain (RRR 52.00; 95% CI, 1.45-
2.85), of greater pain duration (RRR 53.41; 95% CI, 1.94-5.97),
increase in perceived risk of persistence (RRR 51.53; 95% CI,
1.16-2.07) and decrease in quality of life (mental, MCS) (RRR 5
1.44; 95% CI, 1.09-1.94), were more likely to have incomplete
pain recovery than have rapid pain recovery.
3.4.3. Comparison of fluctuating pain (cluster 4) with rapid
pain recovery (cluster 1)
Subjects of older age (RRR 51.56; 95% CI, 1.15-2.20), with
greater pain duration (RRR 52.68; 95% CI, 1.36-5.30), who had
multiple previous episodes (RRR 52.75; 95% CI, 1.43-5.31),
who believed they were at greater risk of persistence (RRR 5
1.74; 95% CI, 1.20-2.63), and who had lower physical (PCS)
(RRR 51.98; 95% CI, 1.31-3.13) and MCS (RRR 51.40; 95% CI,
1.02-1.99) quality of life scores were more likely to experience
fluctuating pain than have rapid pain recovery.
3.4.4. Comparison of persistent high pain (cluster 5) with
rapid pain recovery (cluster 1)
Subjects who were on workers’ compensation (RRR 53.84;
95% CI, 1.41-10.43), with higher baseline pain (RRR 51.88;
95% CI, 1.29-2.84), who had greater pain duration (RRR 5
4.89; 95% CI, 2.25-10.62), who believed that they were at
greater risk of persistence (RRR 51.66; 95% CI, 1.12-2.54),
and who had lower PCS (RRR 52.31; 95% CI, 1.46-3.83) and
MCS (RRR 52.06; 95% CI, 1.43-3.08) quality of life scores
were more likely to experience persistent high pain than have
rapid pain recovery.
4.1. Summary of main findings
We identified 5 distinct pain trajectory patterns for patients with
acute nonspecific LBP presenting to primary care. Two of the
identified clusters included subjects who recovered from their
pain by 12 weeks but differed substantially in the rate at which
pain diminished and time of pain recovery. One cluster
comprised subjects whose pain diminished but did not recover
Figure 1. Proportion of subjects reporting pain recovery, low–moderate pain, or high pain at each time point for each of the 5 clusters.
January 2016·Volume 157 ·Number 1 www.painjournalonline.com 229
Figure 2. Mean pain course for each of the 5 trajectory groups in the 5-cluster latent class growth analysis model. Error bars are cluster SDs. NRS, numerical rating
230 A.S. Downie et al.·157 (2016) 225–234 PAIN
Figure 3. Risk profile for each cluster compared to cluster 1 (rapid pain recovery). Plot of average pain over time for investigated cluster vs reference cluster is
provided to assist with interpretation of risk. Regression coefficients at .95% significance are coloured blue. *RRR per SD increase. †Quality of life reverse scored
(100-score), ie, greater risk with lower quality of life. RRR, relative risk ratio; CI, confidence interval.
January 2016·Volume 157 ·Number 1 www.painjournalonline.com 231
by 12 weeks, another cluster comprised subjects with
fluctuating pain, and the last contained subjects who experi-
enced persistent high-level pain over the study period.
Characteristics for each cluster identified were reported and
compared to the rapid pain recovery cluster. Compared to
rapid pain recovery, we found subjects who had pain duration
of greater than 5 days experienced delayed recovery or
nonrecovery by 12 weeks. Similarly, belief in greater risk of
persistence was associated with a lack of pain recovery at 12
weeks compared to rapid pain recovery.Higherpainintensity,
longer duration, and workers’ compensation were strongly
associated with persistent high pain, whereas older age and
increased number of episodes were uniquely associated with
fluctuating pain when compared to rapid pain recovery.
4.2. Strengths and limitations of the study
The key strengths of our study are the large inception cohort (n 5
1585, drawn from original sample of 1652) recruited from primary
care for a new episode of LBP,
with substantially complete data
($96%) for 5 time points over 3 months. Robust methodology
was used to determine distinct pain trajectory groups with
membership. We a priori selected predictors that we believed
likely to be important to the pain course, and the large sample size
allowed for inclusion of multiple predictors in the multivariate
regression model without overfitting.
The low number of subjects on workers’ compensation (n 5
102, 7%) influenced the CI for this predictor, but the prevalence
was similar to other studies investigating patients with acute LBP
presenting to primary care.
Although the data originate
from a clinical trial, there was no effect of treatment on time to
recovery within the trial, and allocation to active or placebo did not
discriminate membership between trajectory groups. Monitoring
beyond 12 weeks may have helped further define pain trajectories
(eg, place more subjects into the fluctuating trajectory group if
monitored over a longer period), but we were primarily concerned
with exploring latent trajectories for people with acute LBP and
believe this information is critical to patients and clinicians.
Patterns of recovery identified in other studies that followed
patients for 1 year
were also identified in our study (rapid
recovery, delayed recovery, fluctuation pain, and persistent high
pain), suggesting that patterns of persistent pain behavior may be
apparent early in the recovery from acute LBP.
This study does not seek to provide prediction of recovery
given the study design, but does profile the patient who is more
likely to follow one of the identified 5 pain courses. For example,
rapid pain recovery membership was associated with episode
duration (patients with pain greater than 5 days were nearly twice
as likely to recover at 12 weeks vs 2 weeks). Similarly, fluctuating
pain membership was associated with older age when compared
to rapid pain recovery, but older age was not associated with
incomplete pain recovery or persistent high pain trajectory
patterns when compared to rapid pain recovery.
4.3. Strengths and weaknesses in relation to other studies,
discussing important differences in results
This is the first large study to explore pain trajectories for patients
with only acute LBP. It extends the previous work in mixed
cohorts of patients with acute and chronic LBP by showing that
distinct pain trajectory groups are apparent early in the course of
the condition. Information on individual pain course is infrequently
but may be a key to understanding recovery when used
as an element within a prognostic framework.
Our study goes beyond previous studies,
have noted different trajectory groupings and differences in
membership, by identifying patient characteristics at baseline
that associate with pain course compared to ideal (rapid) pain
recovery. The large enrollment provided a base category of
more than 500 patients who recovered by week 2 to represent
rapid pain recovery. We have avoided the problems of previous
studies in this area by enrolling an inception cohort rather than
sampling prevalent cases
and by keeping loss to follow-up to
less than 5%, whereas in other studies, loss to follow-up has
been as high as 54%.
A number of psychosocial factors have been previously found
to be associated with pain trajectory groups (eg, anxiety,
and sick leave
). In our study, only a few
psychosocial factors were available, and so we can make only
limited inferences about the impact of psychological character-
istics on acute LBP trajectories.
4.4. Meaning of the study: implications for clinicians
This study provides strong evidence that averaged pain
trajectories for all people with LBP, which are widely
do not adequately reflect the complexity of the
clinical course. The different trajectory patterns potentially
represent subgroups, which may logically require quite
different interventions. For example, engaging early intensive
therapy to address biopsychological factors may be effective
for patients likely to follow a persistent pain trajectory, whereas
those likely to recover by week 4 may require only watchful
waiting or minimal intervention. Patients likely to improve early
but then worsen may represent a group prone to recurrence
that would benefit from effective strategies to prevent re-
currence. Further research is required to develop simple
approaches for clinicians to identify patients likely to belong
to a particular cluster and also test if targeting treatments
based on likely cluster membership lead to improved out-
comes. This study provides further argument that defining
chronicity based on time may be overly simplistic,
differentiation of our persistent high pain group occurred as
early as week 2 and had a distinctive baseline profile compared
to patients who had rapid pain recovery.
4.5. Unanswered questions and future research
A key research question is whether management focused on
the patient attributes associated with cluster membership can
effectively shift a patient from a less favorable course to a more
favorable course or whether the identified pain courses
represent patient phenotypes.
Another question is
whether communicating pain course heterogeneity in a graph-
ical way during the clinical encounter could assist patient
understanding of pain course
or support recovery through
modification of pain beliefs.
Further investigation is also
required to determine whether simple clinical tools,
appropriate for use in clinical practice, can be developed that
enable early identification of patients who will follow each
trajectory pattern. If this is achieved, it would allow clinicians to
provide more individualized information on course to their
Conflict of interest statement
The authors have no conflicts of interest to declare.
232 A.S. Downie et al.·157 (2016) 225–234 PAIN
This research received no specific grant from any funding
agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors. A. S.
Downie and M. J. Hancock are employed by Macquarie
University; C. -W. C. Lin and C. G. Maher are employed by the
George Institute for Global Health; C. G. Maher is supported by
National Health and Medical Research Council Fellowship
(APP1002081); C. -W. C. Lin is supported by a Career De-
velopment Fellowship from the National Health and Medical
Research Council, Australia (APP1061400); and C. M. Williams is
employed by Hunter Medical Research Institute.
Received 14 April 2015
Received in revised form 17 August 2015
Accepted 31 August 2015
Available online 7 September 2015
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