SAGE Journals

Emergency department use by people with back pain: An investigation

Posted on 2022-08-15 - 00:07

Demand on emergency departments (EDs) is rising, at least in part due to patients with conditions suitable for management in primary care. Pain experienced in the back region is a common reason for patients to seek help and much of the established literature on back pain suggests serious pathologies are rare and the majority of patients can be safely treated in primary care. Emerging international data suggests that patients who present to ED complaining of back pain do not reflect those in primary care, with a higher rate of serious pathologies and non-spinal causes. This exploratory study seeks to quantify the prevalence of people attending ED with back pain, to describe their characteristics and the characteristics of their attendance.


This observational study is a retrospective analysis of patients attending EDs within an NHS Trust in the North East of England presenting with back pain from 1/10/2017 to 30/09/2018.


Of 212,020 attendances, 3872 (2%) patients presented complaining of back pain on arrival. 36% of patients had no official diagnosis recorded, 5% were categorised as having a potentially serious spinal pathology, 22% had a non-spinal pathology diagnosis and 23% were categorised as simple backache. The majority (56%) had no recorded investigations, 19% received plain radiography, 5% received either CT/MRI, 18% had blood investigations and 17% had cardiac monitoring or electrocardiogram. Most individuals self-presented. NHS 111, primary care and community care referrals accounted for 24% of attendances.


Back pain was a relatively common ED attendance and represented a variety of conditions including non-spinal causes. This suggests that the population of patients with back pain attending ED are a different subgroup to those presenting to primary care. Care should be taken applying primary care guidance to this group and there may be a need for emergency care specific back pain guidelines.


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British Journal of Pain


Matt Capsey
Cormac Ryan
Jagjit Mankelow
Jenny Alexanders
Denis Martin
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