Low back pain and physiotherapy use of red flags: the evidence from Scotland



Red flags are recognised as indicators of possible serious spinal pathology, and their use is indicated by numerous guidelines. Similar to other countries worldwide, Scotland lacked a national view about the overall quality of the physiotherapy management of low back pain and the use of red flags. Anecdotal evidence suggested that practice varied considerably.


To improve the use and documentation of red flags by physiotherapists during the assessment and management of low back pain.


Prospective, multicentred, national data collection and improvement initiative.


National Health Service (NHS) health boards in Scotland (n=14) plus two private provider sites.


One hundred and eighty-six individual NHS provider sites and two private provider sites, with in excess of 360 physiotherapists providing services to low back pain patients.


Measurement of documented practice in line with evidence- and consensus-based recommendations from guidelines collected via a web-based tool over two 5-week audit cycles interspersed with an improvement phase over 1 year (2008–2009).


Data from 2147 patients showed improvement in the documentation of all red flags assessed from 33% (n=709) to 65% (n=1396), and improvement in the documentation of cauda equina syndrome from 60% (n=1288) to 84% (n=1804) over the two cycles. Only two regions provided evidence of 100% documentation of all components of cauda equina syndrome, with wide variation across the country.


This national initiative resulted in considerable improvement in the documentation of red flags. Despite this, however, one in five patients did not receive optimal management as recommended by guidance. This has significant implications for patient safety and highlights the need for ongoing education of physiotherapists in this area.


Low back pain and physiotherapy use of red flags: the evidence from Scotland
Fraser Ferguson, Lesley Holdsworth, Danny Rafferty
Physiotherapy 1 December 2010 (volume 96 issue 4 Pages 282-288 DOI: 10.1016/j.physio.2010.01.001)