Why You Want to See a Physical Therapist for Low Back Pain


For the past week, the pain and stiffness in your lower back has been unbearable. Daily activities like unloading the dishwasher, opening the car door, and taking the trash out are a struggle. Even sneezing is painful. You missed a day of work and your spouse has taken over all childcare duties. If you can relate to this scenario, then you probably think an MRI will give you the answers you’re looking for, right?

Actually, that’s not the case according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. Imaging of the lower spine within the first six weeks doesn’t improve outcomes, but it does increase costs. A study that appeared in the scientific journal Health Services Research concluded that physical therapy costs far less than advanced imaging.

The study, led by researchers Julie M. Fritz, PT, PhD, FAPTA, Gerard P. Brennan, PT, PhD,
and Stephen J. Hunter, PT, PhD, OCS, focused on 841 individuals who consulted with a primary care provider about uncomplicated low back pain. Of those individuals, 385 were referred to advanced imaging, 377 were referred to physical therapy, and 79 received a physician specialist visit or other care, including chiropractic.

The average cost differences between the study groups were staggering. An average of 3.8 physical therapy cost about $504 while magnetic resonance imaging rang in at about $1,306. During the subsequent year, costs were 66% lower for the patients who began with a physical therapy referral. Patients in physical therapy spent about $1,871 on their care, whereas the individuals in the imaging cohort spent $6,664.

Physical therapy is not only the least expensive first step in the treatment of low back pain, but also the most effective. Following an evaluation, a physical therapist takes an active approach to low back pain which often gives the patient the skills needed to self-manage their condition. The physical therapist’s goals include decreasing pain, increasing function and teaching strategies to prevent future back problems.

Physical therapy helps patients get to the heart of what’s causing the back pain and gives them tools to succeed in the future. Patients who are referred to imaging first are more likely [than the physical therapy cohort] to pursue other options including surgery, injections, specialist consultations, and emergency department visits within a year. 

"I never thought I’d love PT, but now I do! I’m so appreciative that my first Pt experience has been with the most attentive and patient people possible. I’m thrilled the progress I’ve made and feel confident in my ability to continue improving at home. A huge thanks to the entire A2 team for being so welcoming and understanding. I truly can’t offer any recommendations, as you guys have a great thing going. (except for maybe more fruit infused water. Thanks again!"

− K. Paulson

"My name is Irvin Markham. I am a member of A2 Physical Therapy and Fitness. I have been a member of several gyms but never had a personal trainer. With no schedule or workout plan, I would always eventually quit. My wife suggested to go see her personal trainer Kristi Cruz. What a difference the experience has made in helping me get the most out of my workouts. Kristi has not only helped me get 71 year old body back in shape physically, but mentally as well. She has put me on a set schedule and encourages me to do all the things I need to do to stay healthy. I cannot thank Kristi and the entire staff at A2 for all of the support they have shown me."

− Irvin

"A2 Physical Therapy has been an amazing place to be at for the past 3 years training with Kristi Cruz. I have had knee and shoulder issues and Alika has been great getting me back to doing the things I love. The staff here is always so loving and kind. I know when I come here I am always excited to be here. I love getting the warm smiles from everyone!"

− Haeli