Prevalence and characteristics of musculoskeletal complaints in primary care: an analysis from the population level and analysis reporting (POLAR) database

Romi Haas, Alexandra Gorelik, Ljoudmila Busija, Denise O’Connor, Christopher Pearce, Danielle Mazza, Rachelle Buchbinder

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Electronic health record datasets have been used to determine the prevalence of musculoskeletal complaints in general practice but not to examine the associated characteristics and healthcare utilisation at the primary care level. Aim: To describe the prevalence and characteristics of patients presenting to general practitioners with musculoskeletal complaints. Design and setting: A five-year analysis within three Primary Health Networks (PHNs) in Victoria, Australia. Method: We included patients with at least one face-to-face consultation 2014 to 2018 inclusive and a low back (≥ 18 years), and/or neck, shoulder or knee (≥ 45 years) complaint determined by SNOMED codes derived from diagnostic text within the medical record. We determined prevalence, socio-demographic characteristics and diagnostic codes for patients with an eligible diagnosis; and number of consultations within one year of diagnosis. Results: 324,793/1,294,021 (25%) presented with at least one musculoskeletal diagnosis, of whom 41% (n = 133,279) fulfilled our inclusion criteria. There were slightly more females (n = 73,428, 55%), two-thirds (n = 88,043) were of working age (18–64 years) and 83,816 (63%) had at least one comorbidity. Over half had a low back diagnosis (n = 76,504, 57%) followed by knee (n = 33,438, 25%), shoulder (n = 26,335, 20%) and neck (n = 14,492, 11%). Most codes included ‘pain’ and/or ‘ache’ (low back: 58%, neck: 41%, shoulder: 32%, knee 26%). Median (IQR) all-cause consultations per patient within one year of diagnosis was 7 (4–12). Conclusion: The burden of MSK complaints at the primary care level is high as evidenced by the prevalence of people with musculoskeletal complaints presenting to a general practitioner, the preponderance of comorbidities and the numerous consultations per year. Identification and evaluation of strategies to reduce this burden are needed.

Original languageEnglish
Article number40
Number of pages10
JournalBMC Primary Care
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2023


  • Big data
  • General practice
  • Knee pain
  • Low back pain
  • Neck pain
  • Shoulder pain

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