by Dr. Troy Vander Molen, PT, DPT
Low back pain is very common. It impacts 80% of the American adults at some point in their lifetime. Thirty-seven percent of these people do not seek professional help for relief according to a study by the American Physical Therapy Association.
Most people who do seek treatment start by calling their doctor. On many occasions, the doctor’s first response is to prescribe medication. If that doesn’t work, diagnostic tests are often ordered. Unfortunately, physical therapy treatment is often a last-ditch attempt at managing low back pain.
I understand why people call their doctors first when they experience back pain. When something’s wrong with your body it’s normal to default to your doctor, especially if you’ve never experienced physical therapy. Back pain is scary, and the degree of pain can make people concerned that something is really wrong. The good news is that most low back pain is not serious and can be treated conservatively.
The first steps you take in dealing with your pain can significantly impact the total cost of care. Spending more money doesn’t usually give you a better outcome.
In a study published in the Health Services Research, researchers found that people who were initially prescribed advanced imaging (MRIs and other diagnostic scans) instead of physical therapy ultimately paid more. Those who were referred for diagnostic testing spent an average of $6,664. While those who went to physical therapy spent an average of $1,871. That’s nearly a $5,000 difference.
In addition, those who have images taken of their back are much more likely to have surgery. Unfortunately, we now know the presence of findings in an MRI doesn’t predict a good outcome with surgery. Most people have funny findings in their spine, but only a small percentage of them have pain. Degenerative changes that show up on these scans are normal.
Save yourself some time and money. Consider calling your physical therapist when you experience back pain that hasn’t resolved within a couple of days. Imaging is necessary at times, but your physical therapist is equipped to help you understand when it is appropriate to pursue those increased costs. Otherwise, a course of conservative physical therapy focused on treating the root problem in addition to the pain is likely the right path for you.
If you’d like risk-free access to a physical therapist to assess your pain, sign up for a free screening or give us a call today at 866-588-0230.