BACKGROUND: Recommendations for the management of low back pain in primary care emphasise the importance of recognising and addressing psychosocial factors at an early stage. We compared the effectiveness of a brief pain-management programme with physiotherapy incorporating manual therapy for the reduction of disability at 12 months in patients consulting primary care with subacute low back pain. METHODS: For this pragmatic, multicentre, randomised clinical trial, eligible participants consulted primary care with non-specific low back pain of less than 12 weeks' duration. They were randomly assigned either a programme of pain management (n=201) or manual therapy (n=201). The primary outcome was change in the score on the Roland and Morris disability questionnaire at 12 months. Analysis was by intention to treat. FINDINGS: Of 544 patients assessed for eligibility, 402 were recruited (mean age 40.6 years) and 329 (82%) reached 12-month follow-up. Mean disability scores were 13.8 (SD 4.8) for the pain-management group and 13.3 (4.9) for the manual-therapy group. The mean decreases in disability scores were 8.8 (6.4) and 8.8 (6.1) at 12 months (difference 0 [95% CI -1.3 to 1.4], p=0.99), and median numbers of physiotherapy visits per patient were three (IQR one to five) and four (two to five), respectively (p=0.001). One adverse reaction (an exacerbation of pain after the initial assessment) was recorded. INTERPRETATION: Brief pain management techniques delivered by appropriately trained clinicians offer an alternative to physiotherapy incorporating manual therapy and could provide a more efficient first-line approach for management of non-specific subacute low back pain in primary care.