A new study published in Spine shows that early treatment by a physical therapist for low back pain (LBP) was associated with less risk of subsequent health care utilization and lower overall health care costs than delayed treatment.
Using a national database of employer-sponsored health plans, researchers examined a sample of 32,070 patients who were newly consulting a primary care physician for low back pain. Patients were identified and categorized based on their use of physical therapist services within 90 days of the consultation. Those who were referred to a physical therapist early (within 14 days of the consultation) showed a reduced risk of subsequent health care utilization and experienced lower overall health care costs than did those patients with delayed treatment by a physical therapist (within 15-90 days of consultation).
During an 18-month follow-up period, researchers found that early treatment by a physical therapist was associated with reduced risk of subsequent surgery, injections, physician visits, opioid use, and advanced imaging, along with a corresponding reduction in overall LBP-related medical costs relative to delayed treatment by a physical therapist. Total health care costs for patients receiving early care from a physical therapist were an average of $2,736.23 lower.
The study found that patients using a PPO plan were more likely to receive early treatment from a physical therapist (53.4%) than those using an HMO plan (44.7%). Also, the highest rates of physical therapist utilization were found in the Northeast and West. Patients in the Midwest were more likely to seek early treatment from a physical therapist (58.7%).
Read more about this study, including comments from lead author and APTA member Julie M. Fritz, PT, PhD, ATC, and an April 20 article in Spine that also supports the benefits of early physical therapy for low back pain, in APTA's press release.