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’ve had 4 surgeries with different physical therapy clinics and this was my favorite. I felt comfortable and felt like I mattered to my PT which was a good feeling. My progress was as I had expected and any time I had a question or concern it was always answered and my PT adjusted. If it needed to be to avoid the pain I had I didn’t feel pressured to have more PT appointments or pressured to do workouts that aggravated my pain. Thank you for your help! I think offering stem and ultrasound for every patient will be really beneficial. Great experience overall."

− A.S.

"A2 Physical Therapy is very professional. What I liked the most is that they are very thorough with their assessments and personalizing exercises/treatment according to my pain/limitations/injuries. I really do feel stronger and feel confident to get even stronger! Everyone has a super positive attitude which helps with motivation. Thank You!"

− A. Mun

"I started at A2 about mid-July and I am in the 9:00 am Friday class. A2 has opened me up to new levels of a workout. There is no “golden Standard”. Everyone goes to the best of their abilities. I feel like I can workout without being judged. In my class there are my mom, dad, aunt Lori, aunt Amber, my cousin Mandy and our newest addition Randy. Kristi is always encouraging us to give our all. She is never telling us that we aren’t doing the workout right. Instead she helps us grow by kindly telling us if we do it this way we will get more out of it and she always helps us get there. I decided to do cross country this year and I feel like I can go and be successful and strong because of my A2 workout. Thank you so much for helping me grow in my health."

− Genevieve