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Clinical Research

Application of a Clinical Approach to Diagnosing Primary Pain: Prevalence and Correlates of Primary Back and Neck Pain in a Community Physiatry Clinic.

JOURNAL: The Journal of Pain



Chronic back or neck pain (CBNP) can be primary (nociplastic or neuroplastic; without clear peripheral etiology) or secondary (to nociceptive or neuropathic causes). Expanding on available models of nociplastic pain, we developed a clinic-ready approach to diagnose primary/nociplastic pain: first, a standard physical exam and review of imaging to rule out secondary pain; and second, a detailed history of symptom presentation to rule in primary pain. We trained a physician who evaluated 222 patients (73.9% female, age M = 59.6) with CBNP; patients separately completed pain and psychosocial questionnaires. We estimated the prevalence of primary CBNP and explored biomedical, imaging, and psychological correlates of primary CBNP.

Although almost all patients (97.7%) had at least 1 spinal anomaly on imaging, the diagnostic approach estimated that 88.3% of patients had primary pain, 5.0% had secondary pain, and 6.8% had mixed pain. Patients with primary pain were more likely than the other 2 groups of patients (combined as “non-primary pain”) to report certain functional conditions, central sensitization, and features such as sensitivity to light touch, spreading pain, and pain worsening with stress; however, no difference was detected in depression, anxiety, and pain catastrophizing between those with primary and nonprimary pain.

These findings are consistent with prior estimates that 85 to 90% of CBNP is “nonspecific.” Further research is needed to validate and perhaps refine this diagnostic approach, which holds the potential for better outcomes if patients are offered treatments targeted to primary pain, such as pain neuroscience education and several emerging psychological therapies.

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