Diagnostic uncertainty and recall bias in chronic low back pain

Danijela Serbic, Tamar Pincus

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Patients' beliefs about the origin of their pain and their cognitive processing of pain-related information have both been shown to be associated with poorer prognosis in low back pain (LBP), but the relationship between specific beliefs and specific cognitive processes is not known. The aim of this study was to study the relationship between diagnostic uncertainty and recall bias in two groups of chronic LBP patients, those who were certain about their diagnosis, and those who believed that their pain was due to an undiagnosed problem. Patients (N=68) endorsed and subsequently recalled pain, illness, depression and neutral stimuli. They also provided measures of pain, diagnostic status, mood and disability. Both groups exhibited a recall bias for pain stimuli, but only the group with diagnostic uncertainty additionally displayed a recall bias for illness-related stimuli. This bias remained after controlling for depression and disability. Sensitivity analyses using grouping by diagnosis/explanation received supported these findings. Higher levels of depression and disability were found in the group with diagnostic uncertainty, but levels of pain intensity did not differ between the groups. Although the methodology does not provide information on causality, the results provide evidence for a relationship between diagnostic uncertainty and recall bias for negative health-related stimuli in chronic LBP patients.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1540–1546
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2014


  • Low back pain; Diagnosis; Uncertainty; Recall bias

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