Background: Acute low back pain is a common condition resulting in pain and disability. Current national and international guidelines advocate general practitioner care including advice and paracetamol (4 g daily in otherwise well adults) as the first line of care for people with acute low back pain. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) are advocated in many guidelines as second line management options for patients with acute low back pain who are not recovering. No studies have explored the role of NSAIDs and/or SMT in addition to first line management for acute low back pain. The primary aim of this study is to investigate if NSAIDs and/or SMT in addition to general practitioner advice and paracetamol results in shorter recovery times for patients with acute low back pain. The secondary aims of the study are to evaluate whether the addition of SMT and/or NSAIDs influences pain, disability and global perceived effect at 1, 2, 4 and 12 weeks after onset of therapy for patients with significant acute low back pain. Methods/design: This paper presents the rationale and design of a randomised controlled trial examining the addition of NSAIDs and/or SMT in 240 people who present to their general practitioner with significant acute low back pain.