Traditional care for back pain may wind up costing more money & time

Following the traditional course to care for your back pain may wind up costing you money and time without improving your condition

So, let's say you're dealing with some lower back pain, and you finally decide to do something about it. Would your first step be to see a doctor for advice?

Many people take this approach to address bothersome conditions like back pain, and it may seem like an obvious and harmless choice. But the truth is that seeing a doctor first for your lower back pain can put you on a treatment course that will end up costing you money and time, without the guarantee of actually solving your problem. This may come in the form of long wait times, unnecessary tests and scans, prescriptions to opioids, and risky injections and surgery. Fortunately for you, there is simple way to completely avoid this traditional approach to care and the costs that come with it.

How the costs of the traditional course of care can add up

To help you understand why you should avoid seeing a doctor first for your back pain, let us walk you through what might occur once you step on that path.

After coming to the decision to see a doctor for your lower back pain-which can already take some time to reach in and of itself-in most cases you will have to wait some more time before you can actually get into his or her office. According to a recent study, the average wait time to make an appointment with a new physician is 24 days, which is an increase of 30% from 2014. Even if you've been dealing with back pain for a while, waiting even longer before start treatment can mean the pain will get worse. And sometimes, even more waiting is ahead.

Once you do finally do get into your doctor's office, any number of things can happen next. The doctor may refer you to a physical therapist to begin treatment, or they could send you to have additional tests like an MRI, X-ray or CT scan, which patients are usually told is to better identify what's causing their back pain. Not only will having these tests cause you to wait longer before starting treatment, but it can also increase your chances of having unnecessary surgery.

One study investigated how the use of MRIs for patients with lower back pain affected their overall costs of treatment and risk for having surgery. Here's what it found:

  • Among patients who had an MRI ordered by their doctor, the probability of having surgery within six months went up by approximately 34%

  • Having an MRI was associated with higher health care spending for each patient

The problems with surgery, injections and opioids

The number of MRIs being ordered for back pain patients has been steadily growing in recent years, and as a result, so has the number of surgeries being performed to treat it. Sadly, surgery is not necessary in most of these cases, especially because it's extremely expensive and comes with several risks. And after going through this entire process, many patients will wind up with similar outcomes as if they were to follow a course of physical therapy. In one study, patients with a back condition called spinal stenosis were randomly assigned to either have back surgery or a short course of physical therapy for six weeks. At the end of the study period, all patients experienced similar improvements in their symptoms, with no major differences between the two groups.

Another possible treatment that may be prescribed for your back pain is injections. The claimed benefit of injections is that the solution injected-usually a steroid-directly targets the painful region to relieve pain. But unfortunately, this relief is often only temporary, and injections can also be quite expensive. Another study on the costs of treatment for lower back pain found that patients treated with physical therapy spent about 19% less than those who received injections for their condition.

Prescriptions for pain-relieving medications like opioids can also make their way into the traditional treatment course for back pain. Your doctor may prescribe opioids either on their own or in addition to other treatments, but the potential for abuse and addiction to these drugs is present no matter the amount. To give you an idea of just how dangerous opioids have become, here are some shocking recent statistics:

  • Every day, more than 1,000 people are treated in emergency departments for misusing prescription opioids

  • From 1999-2015, more than 183,000 people have died in the U.S. from overdoses related to prescription opioids

  • As many as 1 in 4 people who receive prescription opioids long-term for non-cancer pain struggle with addiction

See a physical therapist first and avoid the high costs of traditional care

As we mentioned above, there is one incredibly important way to avoid the traditional course of care and all the costs that can come with it: rather than going to a doctor, see us first. Instead of sending you off to have unnecessary tests and potentially risky treatments that can all take time, our physical therapists will work to identify the source of your pain during your first visit, and then create a treatment program that will target your condition directly with exercises and other interventions that are designed specifically for you. In the amount of time that you may have waited for your first doctor's appointment, you can already be on your way to less back pain, better functioning and a greater quality of life.

Seeing a physical therapist first is simply the best choice you can make for your back pain, and in our next newsletter we'll explain just how great of a value this choice can be for you.

February 19, 2018
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