Start Back Screening Tool

“Lifetime prevalence for LBP (low back pain) has been reported to be between 60% and 95% and 34% of the participants in a large population study in Norway reported to have had LBP last week”

These numbers are scary, but are consistent with other published research that notes about 80% of the population will have back pain at some point in life. Think of how lucky you would have to be to go an entire lifetime without having back pain based on these numbers?

It can happen, as I’ve seen patients in their 80’s with a first time occurrence of back pain.

The part that is sad for me, as a PT, is that less than 10% of these people will ever get in to see a PT for back pain.

“Due to the lack of diagnostic tests that can identify objective signs of the condition, most of the patients are characterized as having ‘non-specific LBP'”

If you’re not familiar with the numbers, it has been said that any diagnosis trying to name a specific tissue (disc herniation, arthritis, spondylisthesis, spinal stenosis etc) is only correct about 10% of the time. The more severe the diagnosis the more likely that the specific tissue is the correct diagnosis (such as a tumor, spinal cord injury, infection).

Because of this, a majority (90%) of back pain is just labeled as “non-specific low back pain”. The problem with this is that the treatment for a non-specific problem tends to be…non-specific.

Don’t get me wrong, a majority of back pain doesn’t need much treatment, if any at all, and tends to improve over the course of 6 weeks. Some pains from the back require a specific treatment and a treatment outside of this Specific treatment can worsen symptoms.

This means that we have to actually attempt to classify a patient’s presentation. Understand please that a classification is not a diagnosis but instead more of putting the symptoms into a non-specific “bucket” that most resemble that presentation. For instance, there could be a bucket for fast changing, slow changing and unchanging. There could be buckets for a primarily psychosocial component, chemical component or a bio mechanical component.

“Based on the SBT (Keele Start Back Tool) scores, patients can be categorized into three subgroups: patients with low, medium, or high risk for developing persistent LBP and activity limitations….the low risk group should receive minor attention from health professionals and self management strategies are recommended for these patients. The medium risk group should be offered physiotherapy. For the high risk group more psychologically informed interventions are recommended”

This statement may upset some of my colleagues in PT, but we aren’t always needed for patients that experience back pain. For instance, it is advocated to see a PT if you have pain lingering more than a couple of Days. I’m not sure I completely agree with this, as much back pain reduces spontaneously. The last thing you, as the patient should want is to pay for unneeded treatments. The last thing that I want to do as a PT is to take a patients money if I am not needed at that time.

Again, don’t get me wrong there is a group of patients, with back pain, that should be treated by a Physical Therapist. These patients will score higher on the Start Back Screening Tool.

With that said, it is important that the patient be classified correctly within the first 6 weeks of experiencing symptoms. Some research demonstrates an early classification is beneficial and others demonstrate that it should be done within 6 weeks of symptoms. The reason for this is that the patient may benefit from more psychologically informed interventions, which should be performed by someone with

“To be useful as a screening tool in physiotherapy practice, it is important that the SBT-scoring is reliable and that the allocation to risk groups reflects the severity of the patients back problems.”

There are two things that we look at in terms of performing testing. One, is the test valid. This means does the test actually tell us what we think it tells us.

The second thing is reliability. This means that if I have multiple therapist from different settings performing the same exact task, would I get similar or exact scoring if performed on the same exact patient by different therapists.

“The SBT consists of nine items; referred leg pain, comorbid pain, disability, bothersomeness, catastrophizing, fear, anxiety, and depression…. The total score range from 0 to9, with nine indicating worst prognosis. The last five items are summarized into a psychosocial sub scale with five as the maximal score, indicating high risk for development of chronic LBP”

For more information about scoring, I personally like to use the Shirley Ryan website of outcome measures found here.

“Patients with a total score of 0-3 are classified as low risk (minimal treatment, eg self-management strategies).

I use this tool frequently in PT. I rarely have patients score a 3 or less, but this may be because they are already filtered out by the physician in primary care.

I recently had a patient score a 3 and lo and behold his symptoms were abolished in 6 weeks without intervention.

It’s a small sample size, but it seems to match the research.

To summarize: the STarT Back Screening Tool is an option to utilize in practice in order to determine if a patient

1. Requires little/no intervention and will return to prior level of function (PLOF) through regression to the mean (time > interventions).

2. Requires PT/Rehab only

3. Requires a more psychologically intensive approach to care.

Click here for original research article.

Categories: Physical therapy, PTs, Written BlogsTags: , , , , , , , , ,

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