Context

Low back pain that is not associated with serious or potentially serious causes has been described in the literature as 'non-specific', 'mechanical', 'musculoskeletal' or 'simple' low back pain. For consistency, we have used the term 'low back pain' throughout this guideline. However, 'non-specific low back pain' was used when creating the review questions. Worldwide, low back pain causes more disability than any other condition. Episodes of back pain usually do not last long, with rapid improvements in pain and disability seen within a few weeks to a few months. Although most back pain episodes get better with initial primary care management, without the need for investigations or referral to specialist services, up to one-third of people say they have persistent back pain of at least moderate intensity a year after an acute episode needing care, and episodes of back pain often recur.

One of the greatest challenges with low back pain is identifying risk factors that may predict when a single back pain episode will become a long-term, persistent pain condition. When this happens, quality of life is often very low and healthcare resource use high.

Unlike the previous NICE guidance on the management of persistent low back pain between 6 weeks and 12 months, we have moved away from the traditional duration-based classification of low back pain (acute, sub-acute and chronic) and have looked at low back pain as a whole where risk of poor outcome at any time point is almost always more important than the duration of symptoms.

This guideline gives guidance on the assessment and management of both low back pain and sciatica from first presentation onwards in people aged 16 years and over.

We use 'sciatica' to describe leg pain secondary to lumbosacral nerve root pathology rather than the terms 'radicular pain' or 'radiculopathy', although they are more accurate. This is because 'sciatica' is a term that patients and clinicians understand, and it is widely used in the literature to describe neuropathic leg pain secondary to compressive spinal pathology.

This guideline does not cover the evaluation or care of people with sciatica with progressive neurological deficit or cauda equina syndrome. All clinicians involved in the management of sciatica should be aware of these potential neurological emergencies and know when to refer to an appropriate specialist.

We hope to address the inconsistent provision and implementation of the previous guidance and provide patients, carers and healthcare professionals with sensible, practical and evidence-based advice for managing this important and common problem.

More information

You can also see this guideline in the NICE pathway on low back pain and sciatica.

To find out what NICE has said on topics related to this guideline, see our web page on low back pain.

  • National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE)