Conference Coverage

Inflammatory back pain likely underrecognized in primary care



Almost half of people presenting for low back pain to the Tufts University primary care clinic in Boston were not asked about inflammatory signs and symptoms, according to a review of 239 charts there by rheumatologists and rheumatology fellows.

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In more than two-thirds of cases, the reviewers were unable to determine if patients had inflammatory back pain or not based on what was documented. When symptoms relevant to inflammation – such as improvement with movement – were documented, it wasn’t clear if providers were actually trying to solicit a history of inflammation or if they simply recorded what patients volunteered.

Spondyloarthritis was listed in the differential of just five charts (2%), and only eight (3.3%) documented considering a rheumatology referral.

It raises the possibility that, in at least some cases, an opportunity to diagnose and treat spondyloarthritis early was missed. It’s a known problem in the literature; previous studies report a delay of 2-10 years before ankylosing spondylitis diagnosis.

“In our primary care practice, there appears to be poor awareness of inflammatory back pain [that] could lead to diagnostic delay,” said senior investigator and rheumatologist Steven Vlad, MD, PhD, an assistant professor at Tufts. Primary care providers are usually the first to see back pain patients, but they “did not seem to be screening for” inflammation, he said.

Dr. Vlad presented the study results at the virtual annual meeting of the Spondyloarthritis Research and Treatment Network. The meeting was held online this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The findings suggest that a reminder to check for inflammation might be in order. Dr. Vlad and his colleagues have since held educational sessions, and plan to do more, with the idea of repeating the study in a year or 2 to see if the sessions made a difference.

“People take away what they learn as residents. We probably need to focus on resident education if we really want to make a dent in this,” he said.

The generalizability of the single-center results is unclear, and it’s possible at least in some cases that providers asked the right questions but did not document them in the chart. Even so, the issue “deserves future study in other populations,” Dr. Vlad said.

The subjects all had a diagnostic code for low back pain and were seen by Tuft’s primary care at least twice 3 or more months apart, which indicated chronic pain. Chart reviews included clinical notes, labs, imaging studies, and consultation reports. “We looked for specific documentation that primary care physicians had been asking questions related to inflammatory back pain,” Dr. Vlad explained.

Overall, 128 charts (53.6%) documented some feature of inflammatory low back pain. Insidious onset was the most common, but morning stiffness, a cardinal sign, was the least common, noted in only five charts (2%). About 30% of the subjects had a lumbar spine x-ray, which was the most common imaging study, followed by lumbar spine MRI. Only a handful had imaging of the sacroiliac joints.

In 111 charts (46.4%), there was no documentation that primary care providers had looked for inflammatory features or asked questions about them.

Patients were seen from Jan. 2016 to May 2018. The average age in the study was 37.6 years, and two-thirds of the subjects were women.

Funding source and disclosures weren’t reported.

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