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. 

"It was very helpful to be taught exercises I could do at home to alleviate the pain in my back and to make my stomach/diaphragm stronger. It was a great experience and I took away a lot of knowledge to help myself."

− T. Docherty

"Thank you, thank you, thank you so much for all that you have done to help me get better. What I admire the most is that you have a kind, caring, outstanding staff that not only listens to what is going on with us but goes the extra mile to help each of us achieve our goals. Danny and Alika never, never, never gave up on me and helped me reclaim my life. I love all of you dearly."

− C. Marez

"My wife was trying to get me to go to A2 after she was enjoying the classes. I am busy and wanted to go but always had an excuse. Well one she pre-paid for me to go. Time for me to face my fears about why I hadn’t been going because now I am going. First, I was in ok shape active just not work out shape plus what if I couldn’t beat my wife or the other women in class? What if I passed out?

As Saturday approached my fears rose and my brain searched for an excuse. Yet when I arrived at the class what I found was nothing like I was fearing, quite the opposite. Everyone is focused on their own pace. While being motivating Kristi is not forceful but positive and supportive, coaching each person at their ability.

It has not been a month of one day a week, my body has reacted by toning up, my six pack is back. My wife was mad and happy at the same time. I have been seeing a chiropractor for maintenance and recently my body is firming up and I do not feel the aches and pains of getting older. Was I sore after the first workout? Yes for a few days I was sore, but each week the soreness would decrease. After a month I am not sore but stiff the next day, feeling stronger each workout.

Thank you, A2 Physical Therapy and Kristi, for the good music and for pushing us without pressuring us."

− Mike