Back Pain? Physical Therapy First Shown to Be Cost-Effective

Back pain affects 8 of 10 people in the U.S. at some point in their lives, according to the National Institutes of Health. The condition is bad enough that it accounts for 10 percent of primary care physician visits at a cost of $86 billion in health care spending annually. Studies are showing that number doesn’t have to be so high.

A 2015 study published in BMC Health Services, a health care journal, says many of these costs associated with acute, non-specific back pain can be reduced by up to 60 percent when the patient sees a physical therapist early.

Another study published in the scientific journal Health Services Research analyzed utilization records and other health information for patients who consulted with a primary care provider about uncomplicated LBP and were referred for management outside primary care within 6 weeks. They found that physical therapy was the less costly approach — initial referral for physical therapy cost $504 on average (for an average 3.8 visits), compared with an average of $1,306 for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Also, average subsequent costs over the next year were nearly 72% lower for patients who began with a physical therapy referral--$1,871, compared with $6,664 for the imaging group over the same time period. When patients began with a referral to medical images such as an MRI, they had increased odds of receiving more expensive treatments such as injections and even surgery.

More complicated back conditions had similar results. Lumbar spinal stenosis (the narrowing of the open spaces within the spine) was found to be treated just as successfully with physical therapy as with surgery – and with 15 percent fewer complications, according to a study published in the April 2015 edition of Annals of Internal Medicine.

A 2013 study conducted at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital found that patients who pursued surgical options to treat degenerative disk disease (the breaking down of disks in the spine that affects 3 million people each year) did not experience greater outcomes in pain, disability and health status as those who opted for physical therapy.

“This is important research because it provides even more evidence that physical therapy is a less costly alternative to medication, surgery, and other invasive medical procedures,” said Nancy While, PT, DPT, the American Physical Therapy Association’s (APTA) executive vice president of professional affairs. “Not only do patients benefit from the improved outcomes resulting from an active approach to care, society benefits from the reduced financial burden on our health care system.”

Physical therapists take the time to explain the cause of your pain and how you can achieve and sustain relief.

Physical therapists take the time to explain the cause of your pain and how you can achieve and sustain relief.

Our experience at Compass Physical Therapy

The challenge we face in our physical therapy practice is that while the cost is lower for physical therapy, that cost is increasingly being passed on to the patient in the form of high deductibles and co-pays. This can lead to people choosing either not to care for their pain or seek quicker fixes such as medications or surgery that take less time and effort, but come at different costs.

Physical therapy, on the other hand, addresses all body systems, helping uncover the true cause of your back pain. While it may take more effort than medications and surgery, it provides you with tools you can use for a lifetime to stay healthy. In our experience, the sooner you address your back pain (within two weeks in general) the faster you heal, hence the less expensive the treatment.

Compass Physical Therapy’s PTs have on average 18+ years of experience addressing the variety of causes and remedies for low back pain. If you’re living with this prevalent condition, consult one of our specialists today.


Additional Resources: Health Services Research: VOLUME 50 | NUMBER 6 | DECEMBER 2015. Physical Therapy or Advanced Imaging as First Management Strategy Following a New Consultation for Low Back Pain in Primary Care: Associations with Future Health Care Utilization and Charges

PT in Motion: Referral to Physical Therapy Lowers Care Utilization for LBP vs. Referral Imaging

APTA: Study: Early Physical Therapy for Low Back Pain Reduces Costs, Resources

APTA: Physical Therapy’s Guide to Low Back Pain

Medical News Today: Physical therapy as effective as surgery for lumbar spinal stenosis

NPR “Shots” Blog: Forget the Gizmos: Exercise Works Best for Lower-Back Pain

JAMA Internal Medicine: Prevention of Low Back Pain (Jan 11, 2016)

JAMA Internal Medicine: Worsening Trends in the Management and Treatment of Back Pain