New Study Shows Acute Lower Back Pain May Not Require Physical Therapy

Selina Leavitt - Author

Oct. 17 2015, Updated 10:10 p.m. ET

Acute lower back pain is something that the majority of us will experience at one point or another.

There are hundreds of reasons that people might experience back pain. A person could lift something a little too heavy, a fall could occur, or playing with the kids could go wrong. Those are simple and common reasons, but back pain could come from almost anywhere: large breasts, sitting too long, muscle spasms, kidney stones, fractures, infections, and any number of other reasons.

There are even more serious triggers for back pain as well.

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With so many possible factors affecting back pain, is there any wonder that over 70 percent of us experience it at some point in our lives? In fact, as jobs become more and more based around sitting at computers, more and more people are coming forward with lower back pain.

In the past, doctors recommended long periods of rest to help get passed the aches associated with acute lower back pain. Over time, however, the medical field has learned more about this common injury and have been giving other advice.

Doctors now offer the recommendation to rest only for the first couple of days, just long enough to reduce any swelling in the back. After that, patients not showing signs of a serious cause (such as lack of bladder/bowel control, weakness, fever or unexplained weight loss) are supposed to attempt to remain as active as possible.

It is the belief that acute lower back pain sufferers are supposed to get back to active lifestyles as soon as possible that leads doctors to recommend physical therapy.

A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on Tuesday didn’t disagree with the theory of returning to an active lifestyle, just the assumption that every patient suffering from back pain needed physical therapy to do so.

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Early Physical Therapy vs. Usual Care in Patients With Recent-Onset Low Back Pain: A Randomized Clinical Trial” was authored by doctors in affiliation with the University of Utah, Intermountain Healthcare, and the University of Illinois College of Medicine.

The study followed more than 200 patients with acute lower back pain as they were either prescribed physical therapy or treated normally. It was intended to see if early physical therapy sessions would make a difference.

At the time the study was published, doctors usually suggested physical therapy for back pain sufferers only after a few weeks had passed in hopes that the patients would able to recover on their own.

Half the patients involved in the study received physical therapy, while the other half receive the usual care of pain killers and assurances that the back pain would subside.

Surprisingly, the study showed very little difference between the two groups.

After three months, the back pain patients that were sent to physical therapy had a little more improvement in their range of motion than those without. After a year, however, the difference between the two groups was non-existent.

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Julie Fritz, the associate dean for research in the College of Health with the University of Utah and an author on the study, told NPR that “the average amount of improvement over 100 patients was small, but within that group, there were certainly patients that experienced large improvement and then others who didn’t receive much benefit at all.”

In short, people with active lifestyles may need little, if any, physical therapy. People who have more sedentary habits could benefit from the extra boost to get past their pain.

The study in no way advocates that patients not seek treatment for their acute lower back pain. In fact, because there can be serious causes for the pain, patients should seek help from their doctors early. From there, physical therapy becomes a choice made between a doctor and a patient.

[ Images courtesy of WebMD, Adam Berry/Getty Images, and Hulton Archive/Getty Images ]


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