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BACKGROUND: Low back pain (LBP) is a common cause of disability and is ranked as the most burdensome health condition globally. Self-management, including components on increased knowledge, monitoring of symptoms, and physical activity, are consistently recommended in clinical guidelines as cost-effective strategies for LBP management and there is increasing interest in the potential role of digital health.
OBJECTIVE: The study aimed to synthesize and critically appraise published evidence concerning the use of interactive digital interventions to support self-management of LBP. The following specific questions were examined: (1) What are the key components of digital self-management interventions for LBP, including theoretical underpinnings? (2) What outcome measures have been used in randomized trials of digital self-management interventions in LBP and what effect, if any, did the intervention have on these? and (3) What specific characteristics or components, if any, of interventions appear to be associated with beneficial outcomes?
METHODS: Bibliographic databases searched from 2000 to March 2016 included Medline, Embase, CINAHL, PsycINFO, Cochrane Library, DoPHER and TRoPHI, Social Science Citation Index, and Science Citation Index. Reference and citation searching was also undertaken. Search strategy combined the following concepts: (1) back pain, (2) digital intervention, and (3) self-management. Only randomized controlled trial (RCT) protocols or completed RCTs involving adults with LBP published in peer-reviewed journals were included. Two reviewers independently screened titles and abstracts, full-text articles, extracted data, and assessed risk of bias using Cochrane risk of bias tool. An independent third reviewer adjudicated on disagreements. Data were synthesized narratively.
RESULTS: Of the total 7014 references identified, 11 were included, describing 9 studies: 6 completed RCTs and 3 protocols for future RCTs. The completed RCTs included a total of 2706 participants (range of 114-1343 participants per study) and varied considerably in the nature and delivery of the interventions, the duration/definition of LBP, the outcomes measured, and the effectiveness of the interventions. Participants were generally white, middle aged, and in 5 of 6 RCT reports, the majority were female and most reported educational level as time at college or higher. Only one study reported between-group differences in favor of the digital intervention. There was considerable variation in the extent of reporting the characteristics, components, and theories underpinning each intervention. None of the studies showed evidence of harm.
CONCLUSIONS: The literature is extremely heterogeneous, making it difficult to understand what might work best, for whom, and in what circumstances. Participants were predominantly female, white, well educated, and middle aged, and thus the wider applicability of digital self-management interventions remains uncertain. No information on cost-effectiveness was reported. The evidence base for interactive digital interventions to support patient self-management of LBP remains weak.