Eur Spine J 1998; 7 (3): 218–223
Grevitt M, Pande K, O'Dowd J, Webb J
Centre for Spinal Studies and Surgery,
Queen's Medical Centre,
Psychologic factors may have a major influence on the outcome of treatment for back pain. Psychologic disturbance is manifest as emotional distress and may be associated with inappropriate symptoms and signs. Few outcome studies describe the patient population in terms of their psychologic profile. Anecdotal evidence suggested that the routine use of psychologic screening tests in British spine practice was rare. An audit of the prevalent use of psychologic testing amongst a selected group of British spinal surgeons was conducted. This was followed by a prospective, double blind comparison of subjective evaluations of patients with formal psychologic tests. The principal aim was to determine how accurately treating physicians could identify psychologically distressed patients. A postal questionnaire was sent to all consultant members of the British Orthopaedic Spine Society. Details of their current practice and frequency of use of psychologic tests was obtained. In a subsequent study, 125 consecutive new patients attending a back pain clinic were initially evaluated by questionnaires and classified as either psychologically distressed or non-distressed. These patients were then interviewed and examined by treating physicians, who then allocated them to one of four psychologic categories, using predefined criteria. The two results were compared and sensitivity, specificity and predictive values for the subjective evaluations were calculated. Sixty-three percent of respondents to the postal survey either never or only occasionally used any form of psychologic testing in assessing back pain patients. The follow-up prospective study demonstrated that experienced spinal surgeons achieved only a 26% sensitivity when trying to identify distressed patients. The specificity for identifying non-distressed patients was 96%. The predictive value of a "distressed" evaluation was 69%. The predictive value for non-distressed patients was 77%. Subjective psychologic assessment of back pain patients has a low sensitivity and predictive value for distressed patients. Formal psychologic screening should be routinely included in the clinical decision making process.