Interpretable machine learning models for classifying low back pain status using functional physiological variables

Bernard X W Liew, David Rugamer, Alessandro Marco De Nunzio, Deborah Falla

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To evaluate the predictive performance of statistical models which distinguishes different low back pain (LBP) sub-types and healthy controls, using as input predictors the time-varying signals of electromyographic and kinematic variables, collected during low-load lifting.

MethodsMotion capture with electromyography (EMG) assessment was performed on 49 participants [healthy control (con) = 16, remission LBP (rmLBP) = 16, current LBP (LBP) = 17], whilst performing a low-load lifting task, to extract a total of 40 predictors (kinematic and electromyographic variables). Three statistical models were developed using functional data boosting (FDboost), for binary classification of LBP statuses (model 1: con vs. LBP; model 2: con vs. rmLBP; model 3: rmLBP vs. LBP). After removing collinear predictors (i.e. a correlation of > 0.7 with other predictors) and inclusion of the covariate sex, 31 predictors were included for fitting model 1, 31 predictors for model 2, and 32 predictors for model 3.

ResultsSeven EMG predictors were selected in model 1 (area under the receiver operator curve [AUC] of 90.4%), nine predictors in model 2 (AUC of 91.2%), and seven predictors in model 3 (AUC of 96.7%). The most influential predictor was the biceps femoris muscle (peak ββ  = 0.047) in model 1, the deltoid muscle (peak ββ =  0.052) in model 2, and the iliocostalis muscle (peak ββ =  0.16) in model 3.

ConclusionThe ability to transform time-varying physiological differences into clinical differences could be used in future prospective prognostic research to identify the dominant movement impairments that drive the increased risk.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1845-1859
Number of pages15
JournalEuropean Spine Journal
Issue number8
Early online date2 Mar 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 2 Mar 2020


  • biomechanics
  • functional regression
  • lifting
  • low back pain
  • machine learning
  • motor control


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