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Low back pain and sciatica in over 16s: assessment and management

Assessment of low back pain and sciatica

Alternative diagnoses

  • Think about alternative diagnoses when examining or reviewing people with low back pain, particularly if they develop new or changed symptoms. Exclude specific causes of low back pain, for example, cancer, infection, trauma or inflammatory disease such as spondyloarthritis. If serious underlying pathology is suspected, refer to relevant NICE guidance on:

Risk assessment and risk stratification tools

  • Consider using risk stratification (for example, the STarT Back risk assessment tool) at first point of contact with a healthcare professional for each new episode of low back pain with or without sciatica to inform shared decision-making about stratified management
  • Based on risk stratification, consider:
    • simpler and less intensive support for people with low back pain with or without sciatica likely to improve quickly and have a good outcome (for example, reassurance,advice to keep active and guidance on self-management)
    • more complex and intensive support for people with low back pain with or without sciatica at higher risk of a poor outcome (for example, exercise programmes with or without manual therapy or using a psychological approach)

Imaging

  • Do not routinely offer imaging in a non-specialist setting for people with low back pain with or without sciatica
  • Explain to people with low back pain with or without sciatica that if they are being referred for specialist opinion, they may not need imaging
  • Consider imaging in specialist settings of care (for example, a musculoskeletal interface clinic or hospital) for people with low back pain with or without sciatica only if the result is likely to change management

Non-invasive treatments for low back pain and sciatica

Non-pharmacological interventions

Self-management

  • Provide people with advice and information, tailored to their needs and capabilities, to help them self-manage their low back pain with or without sciatica, at all steps of the treatment pathway. Include:
    • information on the nature of low back pain and sciatica
    • encouragement to continue with normal activities

Exercise

  • Consider a group exercise programme (biomechanical, aerobic, mind–body or a combination of approaches) within the NHS for people with a specific episode or flare-up of low back pain with or without sciatica. Take people’s specific needs, preferences and capabilities into account when choosing the type of exercise

Orthotics

  • Do not offer belts or corsets for managing low back pain with or without sciatica
  • Do not offer foot orthotics for managing low back pain with or without sciatica
  • Do not offer rocker sole shoes for managing low back pain with or without sciatica

Manual therapies

  • Do not offer traction for managing low back pain with or without sciatica
  • Consider manual therapy (spinal manipulation, mobilisation or soft tissue techniques such as massage) for managing low back pain with or without sciatica, but only as part of a treatment package including exercise, with or without psychological therapy

Acupuncture

  • Do not offer acupuncture for managing low back pain with or without sciatica

Electrotherapies

  • Do not offer ultrasound for managing low back pain with or without sciatica
  • Do not offer percutaneous electrical nerve simulation (PENS) for managing low back pain with or without sciatica
  • Do not offer transcutaneous electrical nerve simulation (TENS) for managing low back pain with or without sciatica
  • Do not offer interferential therapy for managing low back pain with or without sciatica

Psychological therapy

  • Consider psychological therapies using a cognitive behavioural approach for managing low back pain with or without sciatica but only as part of a treatment package including exercise, with or without manual therapy (spinal manipulation, mobilisation or soft tissue techniques such as massage)

Combined physical and psychological programmes

  • Consider a combined physical and psychological programme, incorporating a cognitive behavioural approach (preferably in a group context that takes into account a person’s specific needs and capabilities), for people with persistent low back pain or sciatica:
    • when they have significant psychosocial obstacles to recovery (for example, avoiding normal activities based on inappropriate beliefs about their condition) or
    • when previous treatments have not been effective 

Return-to-work programmes

  • Promote and facilitate return to work or normal activities of daily living for people with low back pain with or without sciatica

Pharmacological interventions

  • For recommendations on pharmacological management of sciatica, see NICE’s guideline on neuropathic pain in adults
  • Consider oral non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for managing low back pain, taking into account potential differences in gastrointestinal, liver and cardio-renal toxicity, and the person’s risk factors, including age
  • When prescribing oral NSAIDs for low back pain, think about appropriate clinical assessment, ongoing monitoring of risk factors, and the use of gastroprotective treatment
  • Prescribe oral NSAIDs for low back pain at the lowest effective dose for the shortest possible period of time
  • Consider weak opioids (with or without paracetamol) for managing acute low back pain only if an NSAID is contraindicated, not tolerated or has been ineffective
  • Do not offer paracetamol alone for managing low back pain
  • Do not routinely offer opioids for managing acute low back pain 
  • Do not offer opioids for managing chronic low back pain
  • Do not offer selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, serotonin–norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors or tricyclic antidepressants for managing low back pain
  • Do not offer anticonvulsants for managing low back pain

© NICE 2016. Low back pain and sciatica in over 16s: assessment and management. Available from: www.nice.org.uk/guidance/NG59. All rights reserved. Subject to Notice of rights.

NICE guidance is prepared for the National Health Service in England. All NICE guidance is subject to regular review and may be updated or withdrawn. NICE accepts no responsibility for the use of its content in this product/publication. 

First included: June 2009, updated November 2016.