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A physical therapist assesses a person's low back.

A growing body of evidence supports the benefits of physical therapist treatment of low back pain. A new study shows that using it as a first-line approach not only saves money, but also greatly reduces the chance of receiving a prescription for dangerous opioids.

The study was published in May 2018 in Health Services Research.

Researchers followed the health insurance claims of more than 150,000 patients for one year after a first visit to a health care provider for low back pain. They examined the differences in the type of health care received and how much it cost over the course of a year. They compared those who saw a physical therapist first, those who saw a physical therapist later after the initial visit, and those who saw a physical therapist during the study period. 

The team concluded that patients with LBP who received care from a physical therapist first experienced lower out-of-pocket pharmacy and outpatient costs. They also reduced their likelihood of receiving an opioid prescription by 87% compared with those who never saw a physical therapist. The "physical therapist first" group also experienced 28% lower odds of having imaging services and 15% lower odds for an emergency room visit. 

At any given time, about 25% of people in the US report having LBP within the previous three months. And more than 60% of people with LBP in the US have a prescription for opioids. The US is struggling to combat the misuse of prescription painkillers, which come with dangerous side effects such as depression, addiction, overdose, and death. 

Physical therapists are movement experts. They improve quality of life through hands-on care, patient education, and prescribed movement. You can contact a physical therapist directly for an evaluation. To find a physical therapist in your area, visit Find a PT.

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The American Physical Therapy Association raises awareness about physical therapy as a safe and effective alternative to drugs for the treatment of pain. It aligns directly with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's opioid prescription guidelines (March 2016), citing "high-quality evidence" supporting exercise as a part of a physical therapy treatment plan for low back pain, hip or knee osteoarthritis, and fibromyalgia. 

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