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

August 2020, Volume 29, Issue 8, pp 1845 - 1859 Original Article Read Full Article 10.1007/s00586-020-06356-0

First Online: 02 March 2020

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


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.


Motion 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.


Seven 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 β\documentclass[12pt]{minimal} \usepackage{amsmath} \usepackage{wasysym} \usepackage{amsfonts} \usepackage{amssymb} \usepackage{amsbsy} \usepackage{mathrsfs} \usepackage{upgreek} \setlength{\oddsidemargin}{-69pt} \begin{document}$$\beta $$\end{document}  = 0.047) in model 1, the deltoid muscle (peak β\documentclass[12pt]{minimal} \usepackage{amsmath} \usepackage{wasysym} \usepackage{amsfonts} \usepackage{amssymb} \usepackage{amsbsy} \usepackage{mathrsfs} \usepackage{upgreek} \setlength{\oddsidemargin}{-69pt} \begin{document}$$\beta $$\end{document} =  0.052) in model 2, and the iliocostalis muscle (peak β\documentclass[12pt]{minimal} \usepackage{amsmath} \usepackage{wasysym} \usepackage{amsfonts} \usepackage{amssymb} \usepackage{amsbsy} \usepackage{mathrsfs} \usepackage{upgreek} \setlength{\oddsidemargin}{-69pt} \begin{document}$$\beta $$\end{document} =  0.16) in model 3.


The 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.

Graphic abstract

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