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Early physical therapy may lead to better outcomes for workers with low back injuries: study

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Cambridge, MA — Beginning physical therapy days, rather than weeks, after suffering a low back injury is associated with better outcomes, according to the results of a recent study from the Workers Compensation Research Institute.

Researchers analyzed nearly 26,000 workers’ compensation claims for low back pain and injuries from October 2015 through March 2017 – all of which involved at least seven lost workdays. The researchers also looked at detailed medical transactions involving those claims through March 2018.

On average, starting physical therapy 30 or more days post-injury led to 58% longer stints on temporary disability compared with starting physical therapy within three days. Additionally, delaying physical therapy 15 to 30 days resulted in a 24% longer time on temporary disability.

Other findings:

  • The average medical cost per claim for workers who started physical therapy more than 30 days after a low back injury was 24% higher than for workers who started PT within three days.
  • Workers whose PT started more than 30 days post-injury were up to 47% more likely to receive opioid prescriptions compared with those who started PT within three days.
  • Workers who started PT more than 30 days post-injury had an attorney involved in the workers’ comp process 27% of the time, compared with 13% to 15% of the time for workers who began PT within two to three days post-injury.

“This is a comprehensive study that shows a strong association between PT timing and outcomes for workers with low back pain,” WCRI President and CEO John Ruser said in a press release. “While the study cannot conclude that early PT causes better outcomes, it does suggest that the potential benefits of early PT should be considered when planning care for these injuries.”

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