Building a search strategy

Once you have developed your PICO and well-formed clinical question you can begin to build your search strategy by translating the significant concepts of the PICO into a concept grid.

In adults with low back pain, is Ibuprofen compared to Panadol more effective in reducing back pain

Concept 1: Low back pain Concept 2: Ibuprofen

It is recommended to start with a broad search using the Population and Intervention elements of the PICO. If your search requires further refinement, you may consider including the Comparator and then limit your results to the Study design.

Alternative (similar) keywords

Authors often use different terms to describe the same concept. When searching it is important to consider alternative terms (synonyms) and spelling variations which may be used. Think about:

  • Medical vs. Common terms e.g. Varicella Zoster / Chicken pox
  • Acronyms/Abbreviations e.g. COPD / Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease
  • Generic vs. Brand name drugs e.g. Acetaminophen / Panadol
  • English vs. American terminology e.g. Tumour / Tumor
  • Broader vs. Narrower terms e.g. Obesity surgery / Bariatric surgery

Similar terms can be added to the grid beneath the relevant concept:

Concept 1: Low back pain Concept 2: Ibuprofen
Low back pain
Lower back pain
Back pain
Lumbar pain

Combining search terms

You can structure your search using AND and OR to combine your keywords:

  • AND is used to combine different concepts and narrows your search by instructing the database that you are only interested in articles that contain both of your terms. For example, a search for low back pain AND ibuprofen will only return records containing both the terms low back pain and ibuprofen.

  • OR is used to combine similar concepts and broadens your search by instructing the database that you are interested in articles that contain either of your terms. For example, a search for ibuprofen OR nurofen will locate all records containing either the terms ibuprofen or nurofen.

Database search tips

Truncation (usually an asterisk *) can be used to find alternate endings of a word e.g. educat* for educate, educated, education, educational etc.

Phrase searching (“ “) can be used to search for two or more terms as a phrase rather than individually e.g. “chronic obstructive pulmonary disease”

Wildcards (usually ?) can be used for spelling variations e.g. tumo?r for tumour and tumor

PICO search strategy worksheet

The following worksheet can be used to help in developing your search strategy: