Back pain? Studies say get PT first.

During a time when people are growing more skeptical and concerned about the use of prescription pain medications, a recent study gives hope to the 80 percent of Americans who will experience back pain at some point in their lives, says Lynnwood physical therapist Nancy Mitrano. 

The study, published by Health Services Research in May of 2018, found that those who first consulted with a physical therapist about their low back pain were 89 percent less likely to receive an opioid prescription. 

Such a finding, Mitrano says, only reinforces the multiple other medical studies that exist which point to role exercise and physical therapy play in successfully treating and preventing back pain. 

“Movement is medicine – there’s no disputing it,” said Mitrano, owner of Impact Physical Therapy in Lynnwood. “We see examples of this every day at the clinic, and research continually supports it with regard to several ailments and injuries, including one of the most common and indiscriminate ailments out there: back pain.” 

Eight of 10 people in the U.S. will experience back pain at some point in their lives, according to the National Institutes of Health, with 25 percent of the population having had low-back pain within the last three months. Back pain accounts for 10 percent of primary care physician visits and $86 billion in health care spending annually. 

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 the following year in JAMA (Journal of American Medical Association) Internal Medicine, found that exercise reduced the risk of repeated low-back pain by between 25 and 40 percent. 

“Evidence points to physical therapy is the obvious first step in assessing and treating back pain,” said Mitrano. “A physical therapist can send you down a very different, yet very effective, treatment path than one that begins with prescription medication or advanced imaging – like an MRI. It can also be much easier on the pocketbook.” 

Studies have even shown that physical therapy can be just as effective as surgery in the treatment of some common back ailments. For instance: 

Lumbar Spinal Stenosis

Lumbar spinal stenosis is the narrowing of the open spaces within your spine, which can add pressure to the spinal cord and cause pain in the lower legs and back. A recent study published in the April 2015 edition of Annals of Internal Medicine states the condition can be treated just as successfully with physical therapy as with surgery – and with 15 percent fewer complications. 

Degenerative Disk Disease (DDD)

Affecting 3 million people per year, this condition is defined by the breaking down of the spine’s shock absorbers, known medically as intervertebral discs. A 2013 study conducted at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital found that patients who pursued surgical options to treat DDD did not experience greater outcomes in pain, disability and health status as those who opted for physical therapy. 

“A physical therapist can often effectively treat low-back pain through manual therapy, strength and flexibility exercises, functional training and education,” said Mitrano. “Back pain is such a common ailment, and our physical therapy team boasts years of experience, and successes, that can help set someone on a path toward better health and happiness.” 

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