Back Pain: Early PT or Late?

 Back Pain: Early PT or Late?

Some back pain is so bad or worrisome that it sends us to the doctor or physical therapist looking for relief.  It is common for people and their doctors to say, “In the interest of saving money, let’s wait to see how bad it really is before going for physical therapy.”  It turns out that waiting probably causes more expense and worse outcomes. 

A study published in Spine poured over the records of 32,070 people with employer-based health plans. What each of these people had in common was that they presented themselves to a doctor complaining of back pain.  Among the people who received physical therapy, about half had their first visit within 14 days of their doctor visit and about half had their first visit more than 14 days later – the earlier group and the later group.  The study did not count people who waited longer than 3 months to start physical therapy.

The earlier group spent significantly less on healthcare and had better outcomes:

Medical costs reduced by $2,642 per patient over 18 months

Use of advanced imaging reduced by 74%

Need for surgery reduced by 55%

These results are consistent with a similar study analyzing Medicare billing records, showing that starting physical therapy as soon as possible is beneficial for both workers and retirees.  Why would two weeks make such a big difference?  When back pain first flares up, your body is going through an active healing response. We can do much more to quickly influence the quality of that healing if we get to see you during that healing.  Once pain has become chronic, we can still do a lot to help, but it’s more work. This holds true for sprains and strains as well.  For best results, get in to see us during the acute and subacute phase of your injuries.  

If you are wrestling with back pain, why wait to see a physical therapist?  Start beating back pain for good.  Make an appointment today.


Fritz JM, Childs JD, Wainner RS, Flynn TW. Primary care referral of patients with low back pain to physical therapy: impact on future health care utilization and costs. Spine. 37(25):2114-21.

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