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Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 2012 Apr 20;37(9):775-82. doi: 10.1097/BRS.0b013e3181d79a09.

Management patterns in acute low back pain: the role of physical therapy.

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  • 1Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA.



Retrospective cohort study.


To evaluate the relationship between early physical therapy (PT) for acute low back pain and subsequent use of lumbosacral injections, lumbar surgery, and frequent physician office visits for low back pain.


Wide practice variations exist in the treatment of acute low back pain. PT has been advocated as an effective treatment in this setting although disagreement exists regarding its purported benefits.


A national 20% sample of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services physician outpatient billing claims was analyzed. Patients were selected who received treatment for low back pain between 2003 and 2004 (n = 439,195). To exclude chronic low back conditions, patients were excluded if they had a prior visit for back pain, lumbosacral injection, or lumbar surgery within the previous year. Main outcome measures were rates of lumbar surgery, lumbosacral injections, and frequent physician office visits for low back pain during the following year.


Based on logistic regression analysis, the adjusted odds ratio for undergoing surgery in the group of enrollees that received PT in the acute phase (<4 weeks) compared to those receiving PT in the chronic phase (>3 months) was 0.38 (95% confidence interval [CI], 0.360.41), adjusting for age, sex, diagnosis, treating physician specialty, and comorbidity. The adjusted odds ratio for receiving a lumbosacral injection in the group receiving PT in the acute phase was 0.46 (95% CI, 0.44-0.49), and the adjusted odds ratio for frequent physician office usage in the group receiving PT in the acute phase was 0.47 (95% CI, 0.44-0.50).


There was a lower risk of subsequent medical service usage among patients who received PT early after an episode of acute low back pain relative to those who received PT at later times. Medical specialty variations exist regarding early use of PT, with potential underutilization among generalist specialties.

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