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Phys Ther. 2011 Apr;91(4):484-95. doi: 10.2522/ptj.20100281. Epub 2011 Feb 17.

Physical therapy for chronic low back pain in North Carolina: overuse, underuse, or misuse?

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Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-7590, USA.



There are limited population-based studies of determinants of physical therapy use for chronic low back pain (LBP) and of the types of treatments received by individuals who see a physical therapist.


The purposes of this study were: (1) to identify determinants of physical therapy use for chronic LBP, (2) to describe physical therapy treatments for chronic LBP, and (3) to compare use of treatments with current best evidence on care for this condition.


This study was a cross-sectional, population-based telephone survey of North Carolinians.


Five hundred eighty-eight individuals with chronic LBP who had sought care in the previous year were surveyed on their health and health care use. Bivariate and multivariable analyses were conducted to identify predisposing, enabling, and need characteristics associated with physical therapy use. Descriptive analyses were conducted to determine the use of physical treatments for individuals who saw a physical therapist. Use of treatments was compared with evidence from systematic reviews.


Of our sample, 29.7% had seen a physical therapist in the previous year, with a mean of 15.6 visits. In multivariable analyses, receiving workers' compensation, seeing physician specialists, and higher Medical Outcomes Study 12-Item Short-Form Health Survey questionnaire (SF-12) physical component scores were positively associated with physical therapy use. Having no health insurance was negatively associated with physical therapy use. Exercise was the most frequent treatment received (75% of sample), and traction was the least frequent treatment received (7%). Some effective treatments were underutilized, whereas some ineffective treatments were overutilized.


Only one state was examined, and findings were based on patient report.


Fewer than one third of individuals with chronic LBP saw a physical therapist. Health-related and non-health-related factors were associated with physical therapy use. Individuals who saw a physical therapist did not always receive evidence-based treatments. There are potential opportunities for improving access to and quality of physical therapy for chronic LBP.

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