Review of iPhone apps for lower back pain

Perhaps not surprisingly, apps for lower back pain are not very good.  Read on, and I shall explain.

As part of  my MSc in The Clinical Management of Pain, I conducted a review of iPhone apps for Lower Back Pain in May2014 (as none had been carried out to date).  Apps were included if they mentioned “back pain” in the title or in the commercial description on the app store, and were intended for a consumer audience.

I didn’t have time to review all 128 (83 were excluded from the original 211 as they didn’t match the criteria).  I selected 21 apps and specifically looked for apps that appeared to have healthcare professional involvement and whose content looked the most promising.  The selection included apps produced by public health bodies, a back pain charity, private clinics and “commercial entities.  Here’s a summary of what I found.

How well do they measure up against national clinical guidelines?

  • Average score: 22%
  • Best score: 50%
  • Worst score: 0%

There is a lot of research evidence for what is clinically important when assessing and advising on lower back pain.  If your doctor got these grades at med school, he/she wouldn’t have graduated.

How well do they satisfy consumer preferences?

Based on my own research of 100 back pain sufferers, and that of australian researchers (Nielsen et al, 2013), I scored the apps for the provision of content

  • Average score: 21%
  • Best score: 50%
  • Worst score: 3%

Essentially, most users are not going to find what they\’re looking for in these apps.

What was the user experience like?

I assessed the apps based on “user centred design” principles; essentially, this is about making the whole design of the app as user-friendly as possible.  Only one app claimed to have involved end-users in the design and testing process, so they were pretty poor on this too.  I didn’t conduct a “scoring process”.

So, all in all the apps didn’t take into account what users wanted, and didn’t adhere well to clinical guidelines.  There are some positive reviews left by users of the apps on the app store, but I can’t help but wonder whether the users actually got better – I have my doubts.

Creators of these kinds of apps get you to agree to a disclaimer before you can access the app.  I’m curious as to whether such a disclaimer would stand up in court if a user had a serious underlying medical condition which the app didn’t help to identify.

Apps for lower back pain can definitely play a very useful role in the future of healthcare.  But currently they are mildly useful at best, and dangerous at worst.  My conclusion in the detailed review was –

Despite the methodological flaws in this study, it is inferred that – with not a single app scoring more than 50%, and an average score of 22% for adherence to Clinical Guidelines, and 21% for user-preferred content – the quality of iPhone apps for LBP sufferers is low, and that it is therefore unlikely that they are fit for purpose.

If you ‘d like a copy of the study, I’d be happy to oblige!

And if you’d like a better back, then perhaps best to give us a ring rather than rely on an app (that is until we’ve created our own app for you!!). 😉



Nielsen, M., Jull, G., Hodges, P.W., 2013. Information needs of people with low back pain for an online resource: a qualitative study of consumer views. Disability And Rehabilitation



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