Lower back pain affects roughly one out of every 4 Americans with chronic and debilitating consequences. The American Academy of Pain Medicine shares the following statistics about back pain:
- When asked about four common types of pain, respondents of a National Institute of Health Statistics survey indicated that low back pain was the most common (27%), followed by severe headache or migraine pain (15%), neck pain (15%) and facial ache or pain (4%).
- Back pain is the leading cause of disability in Americans under 45 years old. More than 26 million Americans between the ages of 20-64 experience frequent back pain.
- Adults with low back pain are often in worse physical and mental health than people who do not have low back pain: 28% of adults with low back pain report limited activity due to a chronic condition, as compared to 10% of adults who do not have low back pain. Also, adults reporting low back pain were three times as likely to be in fair or poor health and more than four times as likely to experience serious psychological distress as people without low back pain.
Fortunately, strides are being made in healthcare research to examine and address the treatment of the lumbar regions—and possibly reduce healthcare costs along the way.
A recent study published in the Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice demonstrated the potential value of physical therapy in the treatment of LBP, and the cost impact to related medical care. After reviewing the claims data of 747 patients who sought their initial treatment from one of several types of healthcare providers, the researchers found those who visited a PT as their first line of treatment required fewer follow-up procedures, and thus spent less on healthcare.
Types of providers visited by patients
The study found that of all providers visited first for LBP treatment, primary care physicians were sought out 54.8 percent of the time, followed by chiropractors (27.7 percent) and physiatrists (11.1 percent). PTs rounded out the list at just 6.4 percent, the least sought-after first treatment healthcare provider for LBP.
Interestingly, patients who sought physical therapy as their first line of treatment recorded fewer medical visits than other study participants. This included fewer radiographs, advanced imaging, ED visits and surgeries. In fact, while 2.4 percent of study participants required surgery overall, 0 percent of physical therapy patients required it.
One year after consulting a PT first, LBP patients averaged $904 in annual treatment costs, compared with $2,283 spent by patients whose first line of treatment was from a physiatrist. Those patients who first sought care from a primary care physician averaged $1,167 in annual treatment costs, while those who sought care first from a chiropractor averaged just $878 in one year’s time.
The value of physical therapy to LBP patients
As speculated by the researchers, the success of Physical Therapy in the treatment of LBP could be related to the frequency and length of visits. Since PT visits occur more frequently than other provider visits, and PTs are able to spend more time with their patients during visits, there is more opportunity for patient education. Therefore, they are able to achieve better treatment outcomes in patients with LBP.
A nod to PTs everywhere
This study was one of the first of its kind evaluating the effectiveness of PT in outcomes and associated costs. It demonstrates the value of PT in the healthcare continuum, and helps solidify the value of therapists within the healthcare team.
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