Early access to effective and evidenced-based health care for a medical condition can greatly influence the direction and duration of treatment, as well as overall cost of care, says Apex physical therapist Brock Monger.
And with October being National Physical Therapy Month, Monger points to research that shows people suffering from some musculoskeletal conditions, like low-back pain, are often better off seeing a physical therapist early as opposed to relying only on rest and medication management.
For instance, according to a study published earlier this year by Health Service Research, those who saw a physical therapist early for low-back pain had an 89 percent lower probability of being prescribed an opioid, a 28 percent lower chance of having advanced imaging services (i.e., MRI or CT scan), and a 15 percent lower chance of an emergency room visit.
Patients who visit a physical therapist early for back pain also had significantly lower out-of-pocket costs, and only about 6 percent of them missed time at work.
“As physical therapists, we’re experts in helping people reduce pain and restore mobility, often doing so without the need for invasive and expensive tests and treatments … or the use of prescription medication,” Monger said. “We can assess and treat many common conditions, such as back pain, right in our clinic. Patients can self-refer to physical therapy, but most often we work alongside with the primary care provider or specialist that prescribes physical therapy. If we encounter conditions we can’t treat, we quickly communicate with the patient’s referring medical provider.”
Low-back pain is a very common reason to see a physician in the U.S with 8 in 10 Americans experiencing back pain in their lifetimes. Despite this, one study by Childs in BMC Health Services Research noted that referral to early physical therapy for low back pain occurred only 16 percent of the time. With back pain one of the leading causes of disability and costing $85 billion to $238 billion in direct and indirect health care costs each year, Monger says it’s important people seek treatment paths that offer effective outcomes coupled with education and strategies for preventing future pain.
“While current available evidence strongly supports physical therapy as an ideal early point of care for back pain, this only tells part of the story,” Monger said. “A PT will also include prevention as part of the treatment path, offering individualized plans of care focused on the causes of back pain — helping strengthen the body in ways that can minimize the chances of future injuries and flare-ups.”
In fact, a 2012 study published in Spine found that early treatment by a physical therapist for low-back pain resulted in a reduced risk of “subsequent surgery, injections, physician visits, opioid use, and advanced imaging.” The study also concluded that the total health care costs for patients receiving early care from a physical therapist were an average of $2,736.23 lower.
“Physical therapy is about more than just rehab,” Monger said. “As these studies show, physical therapists are trained to thoroughly assess musculoskeletal pain, identify its sources, and offer individualized treatments that lead to positive, long-lasting and affordable outcomes. With the cost of health care today, these results are powerful and potentially life-changing.”