SUMMARY Current clinical practice guidelines advocate a model of diagnostic triage for back pain, underpinned by the biopsychosocial paradigm. However, limitations of this clinical model have become apparent: it can be difficult to classify patients into the diagnostic triage categories; patients with 'nonspecific back pain' are clearly not a homogenous group; and mean effects of treatments based on this approach are small. In this article, it is proposed that the biological domain of the biopsychosocial model needs to be reconceptualized using a neurobiological mechanism-based approach. Recent evidence about nociceptive and neuropathic contributors to back pain is outlined in the context of maladaptive neuroplastic changes of the somatosensory system. Implications for clinical practice and research are discussed.