BACKGROUND: Pain variability in acute LBP has received limited study. The objectives of this pilot study were to characterize fluctuations in pain during acute LBP, to determine whether self-reported 'flares' of pain represent discrete periods of increased pain intensity, and to examine whether the frequency of flares was associated with back-related disability outcomes. METHODS: We conducted a cohort study of acute LBP patients utilizing frequent serial assessments and Internet-based data collection. Adults with acute LBP (lasting <3 months) completed questionnaires at the time of seeking care, and at both 3-day and 1-week intervals, for 6 weeks. Back pain was measured using a numerical pain rating scale (NPRS), and disability was measured using the Oswestry Disability Index (ODI). A pain flare was defined as 'a period of increased pain lasting at least 2 hours, when your pain intensity is distinctly worse than it has been recently'. We used mixed-effects linear regression to model longitudinal changes in pain intensity, and multivariate linear regression to model associations between flare frequency and disability outcomes. RESULTS: 42 of 47 participants (89%) reported pain flares, and the average number of discrete flare periods per patient was 3.5 over 6 weeks of follow-up. More than half of flares were less than 4 hours in duration, and about 75% of flares were less than one day in duration. A model with a quadratic trend for time best characterized improvements in pain. Pain decreased rapidly during the first 14 days after seeking care, and leveled off after about 28 days. Patients who reported a pain flare experienced an almost 3-point greater current NPRS than those not reporting a flare (mean difference [SD] 2.70 [0.11]; p < 0.0001). Higher flare frequency was independently associated with a higher final ODI score (s [SE} 0.28 (0.08); p = 0.002). CONCLUSIONS: Acute LBP is characterized by variability. Patients with acute LBP report multiple distinct flares of pain, which correspond to discrete increases in pain intensity. A higher flare frequency is associated with worse disability outcomes.