Effectiveness and Downstream Healthcare Utilization for Patients That Received Early Physical Therapy Versus Usual Care for Low Back Pain: A Randomized Clinical Trial

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Study Design.Randomized controlled trial.Objective.The aim of this study was to compare early physical therapy versus usual care in patients with low back pain.Summary of Background Data.Early physical therapy (PT) has been associated with reduced downstream healthcare utilization in retrospective studies, but not investigated prospectively in the military health system.Methods.Military service members seeking care from a general practitioner were recruited. Patients attended a 20-minute self-management class with focus on psychosocial resilience and then randomized to usual care only (UC) versus immediately starting a 3-week physical therapy program (PT). Primary outcome was the Oswestry Disability Index at 1 year. Secondary outcomes included Oswestry scores at 4- and 12-week follow-up, numeric pain rating scale, global rating of change, and healthcare utilization at 1 year. Analysis of covariance was used to compare differences between groups, significance set at 0.05. Trial Registration: clinicaltrials.gov: NCT01556581Results.A total of 119 patients (mean age 27.2 years; mean BMI 27.8 kg/m2; 15.1% female) enrolled (61 randomized to UC; 58 to PT). No between-group differences found on the Oswestry after 1 year. A between-group difference in Oswestry was present at 4 weeks (mean difference = 4.4; 95% CI: 0.41–10.1; P = 0.042) favoring PT. Total 1-year mean healthcare costs did not differ significantly between groups (UC $5037; 95 CI $4171–$6082 and PT $5299; 95 CI $4367–$6431). The portion of total mean healthcare costs related to low back pain was lower for UC ($1096; 95% CI $855–$1405) compared to PT ($2016, 95% CI $1570–$2590).Conclusion.There was no difference between usual care and early PT after 1 year. PT provided greater improvement in disability after 4 weeks. As both groups improved, the impact of the education may have been underestimated. Patients in the PT group utilized greater back-pain-related healthcare resources, but overall healthcare costs did not differ compared to UC.Level of Evidence: 2

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