(HealthDay News) – Early physical therapy, within 14 days of diagnosis, for the treatment of newly diagnosed low back pain is associated with a reduced risk of subsequent health care utilization and associated costs, compared with delayed physical therapy.

Julie M. Fritz, PT, PhD, of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, and colleagues used data from employer-sponsored health plans involving 32,070 patients with a new primary care low back pain consultation. Patients were classified based on their use of physical therapy within 90 days, and those using physical therapy were further classified based on the timing (early [within 14 days] or delayed) and content (adherent to guidelines or non-adherent). Lower back pain-related costs and health care utilization were assessed during 18 months of follow-up.

The researchers found that the utilization of physical therapy was 7%, with significant geographic variability. Compared with delayed physical therapy, low back pain patients who received early physical therapy had a reduced likelihood of receiving advanced imaging (odds ratio [OR], 0.34) and were less likely to require additional physician visits (OR, 0.26), surgery (OR, 0.45), injections (OR, 0.42), and opioid medications (OR, 0.78). Overall, early physical therapy resulted in $2,736.23 less in total medical costs for low back pain.

“Early physical therapy following a new primary care consultation was associated with reduced risk of subsequent health care compared with delayed physical therapy,” the authors write. “Delaying the initiation of physical therapy may increase risk for additional health care consumption and costs.”

Mercer Health and Benefits assisted with the data acquisition and analysis for the study.

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