The study wasn’t designed to look directly at how well physical therapy ameliorates pain. Instead, the researchers wanted to see if physical therapy reduced overall health care costs and patient outlay related to back pain — including the number of opioid prescriptions and the number of advanced imaging tests like MRIs and CT scans, as well as hospitalizations and ER visits.
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It turned out that patients who saw a physical therapist before trying other treatments had an 89 percent lower probability of eventually needing an opioid prescription, a 28 percent lower probability of having any advanced imaging services, and a 15 percent lower probability of making one or more ER visits.
Overall, patients saw “significantly lower out-of-pocket costs — on the average, $500 — when they visited a physical therapist first,” says Bianca Frogner, a health economist at the University of Washington, and lead author on the study.
“People who get trained in physical therapy have very specialized knowledge about pain management,” she says, “especially with the muscular skeletal system. They might actually understand this pain better than the average family physician.”
It’s also worth noting, she says, that some patients who could benefit from physical therapy don’t get it, because of health insurance restrictions, or because they lack insurance, or the copayments are too high.
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