Relative contributions of the nervous system, spinal tissue and psychosocial health to non-specific low back pain: Multivariate meta-analysis

Scott D. Tagliaferri, Sin Ki Ng, Bernadette M. Fitzgibbon, Patrick J. Owen, Clint T. Miller, Steven J. Bowe, Daniel L. Belavy

Research output: Contribution to journalReview ArticleResearchpeer-review

13 Citations (Scopus)


Background and Objectives: Nervous system, psychosocial and spinal tissue biomarkers are associated with non-specific low back pain (nsLBP), though relative contributions are unclear. Databases and Data Treatment: MEDLINE, EMBASE, CINAHL, PsycINFO and SPORTDiscus were searched up to 25 March 2020. Related reviews and reference lists were also screened. Observational studies examining structural and functional nervous system biomarkers (e.g. quantitative sensory tests, structural and functional brain measures), psychosocial factors (e.g. mental health, catastrophizing) and structural spinal imaging biomarkers (e.g. intervertebral disc degeneration, paraspinal muscle size) between nsLBP and pain-free controls were included. For multivariate meta-analysis, two of three domains were required in each study. Random-effects pairwise and multivariate meta-analyses were performed. GRADE approach assessed evidence certainty. Newcastle-Ottawa scale assessed risk of bias. Main outcomes were the effect size difference of domains between nsLBP and pain-free controls. Results: Of 4519 unique records identified, 33 studies (LBP = 1552, referents = 1322) were meta-analysed. Psychosocial state (Hedges’ g [95%CI]: 0.90 [0.69–1.10], p < 0.001) in nsLBP showed larger effect sizes than nervous system (0.31 [0.13–0.49], p < 0.001; difference: 0.61 [0.36–0.86], p < 0.001) and spine imaging biomarkers (0.55 [0.37–0.73], p < 0.001; difference: 0.36 [0.04–0.67], p = 0.027). The relationship between domains changes depending on if pain duration is acute or chronic. Conclusions: Psychosocial effect sizes in nsLBP are greater than that for spinal imaging and nervous system biomarkers. Limitations include cross-sectional design of studies included and inference of causality. Future research should investigate the clinical relevance of these effect size differences in relation to pain intensity and disability. Study Registration: PROSPERO-CRD42020159188. Significance: Spinal imaging (e.g. intervertebral disc degeneration), psychosocial (e.g. depression) and nervous system (e.g. quantitative sensory tests, structural and functional brain measures) biomarkers contribute to non-specific low back pain. However, psychosocial factors may be more compromised than nervous system and spinal imaging biomarkers. This relationship depends on if the pain is acute or chronic. These findings underscore that the ‘non-specific’ label in back pain should be reconsidered, and more specific multidimensional categories evaluated to guide patient management.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)578-599
Number of pages22
JournalEuropean Journal of Pain
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2022

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