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. 

"Kristi’s weekly bootcamp has truly gotten me out of my comfort zone. I started attending with my family a few months ago. My first couple of times I was so ore! At times I became discouraged, but I just pushed through! I keep coming every week I am available. There’s no shaming if you must miss a week. You can even have someone go on your behalf if you miss a week. Since starting Kristi’s bootcamp I’ve said yes to other fitness opportunities I would have previously turned down. I now workout EVERYDAY and I’ve lost over 20 lbs since I first started coming. Thanks Kristi and to my family for introducing mw to this awesome bootcamp!"

− Amanda

"I had a great time coming in to A2 every week. Everyone was really helpful and fun to be around. The exercises we did made a huge difference in getting my body and confidence back to shape. Next time I'm injured, I will know just where to go. Thank you!"

− Eric

"A2 staff are friendly and informative. All my questions and concerns were addressed. I looked forward to my appointments because even if I didn’t see my progress, because it was so gradual, the staff here made sure to celebrate every move forward. I thought I’d always have a limp/never recover fully, but I was wrong!"

− Amanda