The research team’s findings were published online ahead of the June issue of SPINE, a publication of professional health information for physicians, nurses, specialized clinicians, and students.The study was designed to gain a better understanding of the value of referring patients with low back pain (LBP) from primary care to physical therapy and evaluate the effects of early physical therapy intervention on outcome, subsequent healthcare, and costs.The research was based on data from 32,070 patients who received a recent LBP primary care consultation. Of the overall data sample, 7% received physical therapy treatment within 90 days. Researchers then assigned those referred to physical therapy to one of two groups: early physical therapy treatment – within 14 days of the consultation, or delayed physical therapy treatment – within 15-90 days of the consultation. At the end of the study, participants in the early intervention group experienced a decreased risk of further treatment such as advanced imaging, additional physician visits, surgery, injections, and pain-reliever medications. The study also revealed that during the 18-month follow-up period, medical costs for the early treatment group were $2,736 per patient lower than the group that delayed physical therapy.
“Research has established that high quality physical therapy results in measurable, positive changes in outcomes for patients with musculoskeletal conditions such as low back pain,” states research contributor John Childs, PT, PhD. “However, this is one of the first studies to show that early referral to physical therapy reduces LBP-related and overall health care costs as well. In particular, there were important reductions in the use of expensive and sometimes risky procedures such as drugs, surgery, and imaging.”
The study was supported by grants from the Orthopaedic and Private Practice Sections of the American Physical Therapy Association, the American Academy of Orthopaedic and Manual Physical Therapists and by a Texas State University faculty grant.