Graded Exposure for Chronic Low Back Pain in Older Adults: A Pilot Study

Corinna Leonhardt, Katrin Kuss*, Annette Becker, Heinz-Dieter Basler, Jeroen de Jong, Brigitta Flatau, Marjan Laekeman, Peter Mattenklodt, Matthias Schuler, Johan Vlaeyen, Sabine Quint

*Corresponding author for this work

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Background and Purpose: Fear-avoidance beliefs in older adults with chronic low back pain (CLBP) can lead to disability. Graded exposure-based active physical therapy could be an option to enhance physical ability in older patients with CLBP. The purpose of this study was to develop a standardized graded exposure treatment according to the fear-avoidance model of musculoskeletal pain for older patients with CLBP and to examine its effectiveness and feasibility in the German health care system. Methods: The study represents a phase I/phase II trial of a complex intervention. Taking a first step into the hierarchy of growing empirical evidence, a prospective 1-factor observational study was conducted with repeated measurements 1 week before and within 2 weeks after the intervention. Three physical therapists, who completed an introductory workshop, provided the treatment in the form of individual therapies. Sixteen participants 65 years or older with CLBP and perceived physical limitations were recruited. Four patient-reported outcome measures and semistructured interviews were conducted. The primary outcome was physical ability measured with the Hanover Functional Ability Questionnaire. Secondary outcomes were the numerical pain rating scale, and an age-specific and adapted 11-item short-form of the Patient Anxiety Symptom Scale, the KVS-D 65+, which quantified catastrophizing and avoidance beliefs. Fear of falling was measured with the Falls Efficacy Scale-International. For the analysis, Wilcoxon signed-rank test for paired samples and an a level of .05 were chosen. For the qualitative evaluation, semistructured interviews were conducted with the patients and physical therapists explored indicators of feasibility such as demands, acceptability, satisfaction, adaptation needs, and implementation. For content analysis, codes were primarily derived deductively and complemented by inductively derived new themes. Results: A significant increase in physical ability after the treatment was observed with an effect size (ES) of 0.95 (P = .008). With regard to secondary outcomes, there was a statistically signifi cant decrease in pain intensity (P = .029) and a reduction in catastrophizing (ES = 0.91; P = .021) and avoidance beliefs (ES = 1.37; P = .001). The interviews revealed good acceptance and satisfaction of the treatment by the patients and physical therapists. Conclusion: On the whole, the treatment appears effective and feasible. Apart from the benefits achieved by the participants, the study provides a basis for designing future studies at a higher level of evidence.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)51-59
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of geriatric physical therapy
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • chronic pain
  • fear-avoidance beliefs
  • graded exposure
  • older adults
  • physiotherapy

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