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Study highlights the benefits of early physical therapy for low back pain

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Patients with low back pain benefit from having early physical therapy, according to a new study.

Researchers at the US National Institutes of Health analysed 150,000 health insurance claims for patients newly diagnosed with low back pain and found that those who saw a physical therapist at the first point of care had an 89% lower probability of receiving an opioid prescription, a 28% lower probability of having advanced imaging services, and a 15% lower probability of an emergency department visit.

Patients who saw a physical therapist first also had a 19% higher probability of hospitalisation, but the authors noted that this is not necessarily a bad outcome if physical therapists are appropriately referring patients to specialised care when low back pain is not resolved by addressing potential musculoskeletal causes first.

About 80% of adults experience back pain at some point during their lifetime, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Instead of being given painkillers, x-rays and told to rest, the researchers said that seeing a physical therapist first and doing prescribed exercise is a more proven method.

The study, published in Health Services Research, follows a series of three papers on low back pain featured in the The Lancet, which reported that too many patients are treated with surgery and pain medication as first-line treatments rather than more beneficial therapies such as exercise and cognitive behavioural therapy.

“The spine needs movement,” explained Doug Gross, a professor in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine at the University of Alberta.