People with back pain are often referred for physical therapy, though studies on its effectiveness have been mixed. A randomized trial suggests that, despite some limitations, physical therapy may have real benefits.
Researchers studied 220 adults, aged 18 to 60, with back pain and sciatica (pain radiating down the leg) of less than three months’ duration. They assigned half to usual care — one session of education about back care — and half to four weeks of physical therapy, including a specified program of exercise and hands-on therapy. All patients completed eight well-validated questionnaires covering back and leg pain, disability, physical activity and quality of life.
At four weeks, six months and one year, the therapy group showed less disability and decreased back pain intensity compared with the controls. There was no difference between the treatment group and controls in how much additional health care they used or how many days of work they missed, but the therapy group was more likely to rate their treatment as successful at one month and one year. The study is in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
“We know that with back pain and sciatica, being active and exercising within your limits is a good thing to do,” said the lead author, Julie M. Fritz, a professor of physical therapy at the University of Utah. “But there’s an additive benefit in the care provided by a physical therapist. With added physical therapy, you’re less likely to have a prolonged case of disability.”