Physical Therapy for Back Pain Lowers Healthcare Costs

By Pat Anson, Editor

If you have lower back pain and get it treated with physical therapy first, you are significantly less likely to later need opioid medication or high cost medical services, according to a new study in Health Services Research.

Researchers at the University of Washington and George Washington University analyzed health insurance claims for over 50 million people from 2009 to 2013, tracking patients who had a new diagnosis of lower back pain.

Compared with patients who saw a physical therapist later or not at all, those who saw a physical therapist first had an 89% lower probability of having an opioid prescription, a 28% lower probability of having an MRI or advanced imaging, and a 15% lower probability of having an emergency department visit. Their healthcare costs were also significantly lower for out-patient care, pharmacy and out-of-pocket expenses.

“We found important relationships among physical therapy intervention, utilization, and cost of services and the effect on opioid prescriptions," said co-author Ken Harwood, PT, a professor of physical therapy at George Washington University.

One unexpected finding is that patients who had physical therapy first had a 19% greater chance of being hospitalized.

“Having an in-patient hospitalization is not necessarily a bad outcome for a patient. PTs (physical therapists) provide care that aims to resolve LBP (lower back pain) by addressing musculoskeletal causes first, but if the problem does not get resolved, PTs may refer patients appropriately for more specialized care,” the study found.

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One out of every four Americans will experience at least one day of lower back pain every three months. Researchers say about half will be treated with opioid medication, while physical therapy (12%), exercise (19%) and psychological therapy (8%) will be recommended far less often.    

"Given our findings in light of the national opioid crisis, state policymakers, insurers, and providers may want to review current policies and reduce barriers to early and frequent access to physical therapists as well as to educate patients about the potential benefits of seeing a physical therapist first," said lead author Bianca Frogner, PhD, a professor and health economist at the University of Washington Center for Health Workforce Studies.

Lower back pain is the world’s leading cause of disability, affecting about 540 million people at any given time. But there is little consensus on the best way to treat it.

A recent series of reviews appearing in The Lancet medical journal found that lower back pain is usually treated with inappropriate tests, risky surgeries and painkillers.

“The majority of cases of low back pain respond to simple physical and psychological therapies that keep people active and enable them to stay at work,” said lead author Professor Rachelle Buchbinder of Monash University in Australia. “Often, however, it is more aggressive treatments of dubious benefit that are promoted and reimbursed.”

Imaging Identified as Most Wasteful Medical Test

By Pat Anson, Editor

Should you get an MRI for your headache?

What about a CT scan for low back pain?

Or a bone-density scan for someone under the age of 65?

In most cases, the answer to all of those questions is no, according to the Choosing Wisely campaign of the ABIM Foundation, which seeks to reduce the use of hundreds of unnecessary and costly medical tests. Experts say an MRI or CT scan of the lower back can cost over $1,200 and does nothing to relieve your back pain.

Since Choosing Wisely was launched in 2012, over 370 wasteful procedures have been identified by over 70 medical societies, such as the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the American Academy of Neurological Surgeons. Each organization was asked to identify an initial list of five medical services that may be unnecessary. Many societies went far beyond that, returning with two or even three lists.

A neurologist at the University of Michigan says the list of recommendations from the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) only scratches the surface. Brian Callaghan, MD, has identified 74 tests and procedures related to neurology that are often unnecessary. Many involve the use of imaging.

“The two biggest areas that might be done more than they should are imaging for low back pain and imaging for headaches,” Callaghan said. “It’s a big problem and it costs a lot of money – we’re talking a billion dollars a year on just headache imaging.”

According to a recent study at the University of Michigan, one in eight visits to a doctor for a headache or migraine end up with the patient going for a brain scan. Often a doctor will order a CT or MRI scan to ease a patient’s fear that they may have a brain tumor or some other serious issue causing their pain. Physicians could also order a scan to protect themselves legally in case of a future lawsuit.

In most cases, however, the brain scan will be useless. Previous research found that only 1 to 3 percent of brain scans of patients with repeated headaches identify a cancerous growth or aneurysm that's causing the problem. Many of the issues that a scan might identify don’t pose a serious threat or may not require treatment right away. There is also the risk of a false positive that could generate unnecessary fear and alarm.

“These are all areas where lots of physicians agree that you’re more likely to get harmed by doing the procedures,” said Callaghan, whose study was recently published in the journal Neurology.

Callaghan isn’t encouraging you to say no if your doctor wants to image your brain or lower back, but he hopes his research will inspire a thoughtful discussion between doctors and patients about the purpose of the test and its value

“Ordering an MRI for a headache is very quick, and it actually takes longer to describe to the patient why that’s not the best route,” Callaghan said. “These guidelines are meant for physicians and patients both, to trigger a conversation.”

Besides imaging, another treatment that is widely questioned is the use of opioid pain medication to treat headaches and migraine. The Choosing Wisely campaign recommends that opioids only be used as a last resort for severe headaches, including migraine. Overuse of any pain reliever – even over-the-counter medications -- are known to make headaches worse.

Imaging for Back Pain Often Doesn't Help Older Adults

By Pat Anson, Editor

Spending thousands of dollars on CT scans or MRI’s is often a waste of time and money for older adults with low back pain, according to a large new study published in JAMA.

Researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle say older adults with lower back pain who had spine imaging within six weeks of visiting a primary care doctor had pain and disability over the following year that was no different than other patients who did not have advanced imaging.

“Among older adults with a new primary care visit for back pain, early imaging was not associated with better one-year outcomes. The value of early diagnostic imaging in older adults for back pain without radiculopathy is uncertain,” said Jeffrey G. Jarvik, MD, a professor of radiology in the UW School of Public Health, who studies the cost effectiveness of treatments for patients with low back pain.

Jarvik and his colleagues studied over 5,200 adults aged 65 or older who had a new primary care visit for back pain at three U.S. health care systems. They followed up with the patients 12 months later, comparing pain and disability for those who received early imaging with those who did not. The imaging included radiographs (X-rays), computed tomography (CT scans) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the lumbar or thoracic spine.

Among the patients studied, 1,174 had early radiographs and 349 had early MRI/CT. At 12 months, neither the early radiograph group nor the early MRI/CT group differed significantly from controls on measures of back or leg pain-related disability.

When to image older adults with back pain remains controversial. Some guidelines recommend that older adults undergo early imaging because they are more likely to have serious underlying medical conditions, such as cancer or infections.

The American College of Radiology recommends early imaging with MRI for patients older than 70 with back pain, as well as patients older than 50 with osteoporosis. European guidelines say patients older than 55 with back pain should have imaging.

However, Jarvik says there is no strong evidence to support those guidelines.

“Despite the lack of evidence supporting routine imaging for older adults with back pain, guidelines commonly recommend that older patients with back pain undergo imaging,” he wrote. "Our study results support an alternative position that regardless of age, early imaging should not be performed routinely.”

Jarvik says adverse consequences from early imaging are more likely in older adults because they can lead to unnecessary treatments, including steroids injections and surgery.

Early imaging for lower back pain is not recommended for people at any age, according to the Choosing Wisely campaign, an initiative of the ABIM Foundation to encourage physicians and patients to make better choices about their healthcare treatment.

Most people with lower-back pain feel better in about a month whether they get an imaging test or not. In fact, those tests can lead to additional procedures that complicate recovery,” Choosing Wisely states on its website.

“A study that looked at 1,800 people with back pain found that those who had imaging tests soon after reporting the problem fared no better and sometimes did worse than people who took simple steps like applying heat, staying active, and taking an OTC pain reliever. Another study found that back-pain sufferers who had an MRI in the first month were eight times more likely to have surgery, and had a five-fold increase in medical expenses.”

According to HealthCareBlueBook.com, an MRI of the lower back can range from $880 to $1,230, and a CT scan from $1,080 to $1,520.