Early Physical Therapy Heals Work-Related Back Injuries

Physical therapy can help heal work-related back injuries, leading to reduced doctor visits, missed work days and overall workers' compensation costs.

If it is works for injured athletes, why can't it work for injured workers?

New research suggests that when sought early, physical therapy can help heal certain work-related back injuries, leading to reduced doctor visits, missed work days and overall workers' compensation costs.

According to a recent study, work-related injuries cost billions of dollars each year. Most of these expenses relate to nonmedical costs such as productivity losses and administrative costs.

Early physical therapy is often used to get athletes back in the game, but its effect in regards to work-related back disorders remains unexplored, according to Gary Z. Zignefus and colleagues with Concentra Health Services Inc., in Addison, Texas.

To investigate, the team randomly assigned 3,867 workers with acute low back pain injuries, mostly lumbar sprains, into three groups.

The first group received an initial physical therapy session the day they sustained the injury or the day after their injury occurred.

Patients in the second group had their first session within two to seven days after the injury occurred, and subjects in the third group received physical therapy eight to 197 days after the injury occurred.

The study, published in the January issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, found that patients who received physical therapy early averaged 3.1 physician visits, compared with 3.4 for the second group and 3.9 for the third group.

Women and patients over 30 year old saw their physicians the most.

The study also revealed that the duration of injury was shorter among early-intervention patients.

The number of days patients were put on restricted work duty by their physicians was 8.1 days for patients who received early physical therapy, compared with 9.9 for patients in the second group and 16.5 days for patients in the third group, according to researchers.

Similarly, patients in the first group missed an average of 4.5 workdays compared with 5.2 days and 7.0 days for the other two groups.

Study authors concluded that "early therapy intervention is effective."

The use of early physical therapy also provides important economic benefits.

"Reducing prolonged disability is the key to substantially cutting workers' compensation costs," said Zigenfus. "The sports medicine approach to rehabilitation, with its emphasis on early intervention and function restoration, could provide occupational healthcare providers a cost-effective way to treat work-related low back injuries."

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