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BACKGROUND: Although guidelines for the management of low back pain have been published in the past decade, there is potential for further improvement in back pain care. AIM: To document the management of non-specific low back pain by general practitioners (GPs) in the Netherlands, to determine how this management of care is related to patient and physician factors, and to explore possible reasons for not adhering to the guidelines. METHOD: A prospective study was set up in which 57 GPs in 30 general practices completed a computerised questionnaire after each consultation for low back pain during a four-month period. RESULTS: Of 1640 back pain contacts, 1180 referred to non-specific low back pain. Diagnostic tests were ordered in 2% of first consultations and in 7% of follow-up consultations within one episode. The advice to stay active despite pain was given in 76% and 69% of these cases respectively. Patients were prescribed an analgesic in 53% and 41% of cases respectively (mainly NSAIDs [80%]). Patients were referred to a physiotherapist in 22% of first and in 50% of follow-up consultations. Older patients were physically examined less often, prescribed analgesics more often, and were told less often that staying active could benefit them. The advice to remain active was omitted more often when symptoms lasted longer. Only a small part of the variance in management was accounted for by patient characteristics or by differences between practices. CONCLUSION: The management of low back pain met the guidelines to a large extent. Management decisions were often related to characteristics in which the guidelines lack differentiation. Important reasons for non-adherence were perceived patients' preferences. Further implementation of guidelines will be difficult unless doctors' and patients' views are more explicitly known.