Recall bias in pain scores evaluating abdominal wall and groin pain surgery

W A R Zwaans*, J A de Bruijn, J P Dieleman, E W Steyerberg, M R M Scheltinga, R M H Roumen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


PURPOSE: To determine whether levels of pre-operative pain as recalled by a patient in the post-operative phase are possibly overestimated or underestimated compared to prospectively scored pain levels. If so, a subsequent misclassification may induce recall bias that may lead to an erroneous effect outcome.

METHODS: Data of seven retrospective cohort studies on surgery for chronic abdominal wall and groin pain using three different pain scores were systematically analyzed. First, it was assessed whether retrospectively acquired pre-operative pain levels, as scored by the patient in the post-operative phase, differed from prospectively obtained pre-operative pain scores. Second, it was determined if errors associated with retrospectively obtained pain scores potentially lead to a misclassification of treatment outcome. Third, a meta-analysis established whether recall misclassifications, if present, affected overall study conclusions.

RESULTS: Pain data of 313 patients undergoing remedial surgery were evaluated. The overall prevalence of misclassification due to a recall error was 13.7%. Patients not benefitting from surgery ('failures') judged their pre-operative pain level as more severe than it actually was. In contrast, patients who were pain free after remedial surgery ('successes') underestimated pre-operative pain scores. Recall misclassifications were significantly more present in failures than in successful patients (odds ratio 2.4 [95% CI 1.2-4.8]).

CONCLUSION: One in seven patients undergoing remedial groin surgery is misclassified on the basis of retrospectively obtained pre-operative pain scores (success instead of failure, or vice versa). Misclassifications are relatively more present in failures after surgery. Therefore, the effect size of a therapy erroneously depends on its success rate.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)41-54
Number of pages14
Issue number1
Early online date18 Oct 2022
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2023


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