Physical therapist management of acute and chronic low back pain using the World Health Organization's International Classification of Functioning, Disability, and Health


Davenport: 0000-0001-5772-7727

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Physical Therapy









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BACKGROUND AND PURPOSE: The World Health Organization's Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (WHO-ICF) model was developed to describe, classify, and measure function in health care practice and research. Recently, this model has been promoted as a successor to the Nagi model by some authors in the physical therapy literature. However, conceptual work in demonstrating use of the WHO-ICF model in physical therapist management of individual patients remains sparse. The purpose of this case report series is to demonstrate the application of the WHO-ICF model in clinical reasoning and physical therapist management of acute and chronic low back pain.

CASE DESCRIPTION: Two patients, 1 with acute low back pain and 1 with chronic low back pain, were treated pragmatically using the WHO-ICF model and other applicable models of clinical reasoning.

INTERVENTION: Manual therapy, exercise, and education interventions were directed toward relevant body structure and function impairments, activity limitations, and contextual factors based on their hypothesized contribution to functioning and disability.

OUTCOME: Both patients demonstrated clinically significant improvements in measures of pain, disability, and psychosocial factors after 3 weeks and 10 weeks of intervention, respectively.

DISCUSSION: The WHO-ICF model appears to provide an effective framework for physical therapists to better understand each person's experience with his or her disablement and assists in prioritizing treatment selection. The explicit acknowledgment of personal and environmental factors aids in addressing potential barriers. The WHO-ICF model integrates well with other models of practice such as Sackett's principles of evidence-based practice, the rehabilitation cycle, and Edwards and colleagues' clinical reasoning model. Future research should examine outcomes associated with the use of the WHO-ICF model using adequately designed clinical trials.