While an estimated eight in 10 people will experience back pain at some point in their lives – up to 30 percent of Americans, in fact, over the past three months – few people actually get to the bottom of the cause of the pain.

This is a problem, says Bend physical therapist Laura Cooper.

“When you don’t know the cause of your pain, all you’re doing is treating the symptom, and this isn’t a winning prescription for achieving long-term health,” said Cooper, clinic director of Therapeutic Associates Physical Therapy at The Athletic Club of Bend.

According to a study by the American Academy of Family Physicians, the cause of lower back pain is only clearly identified in about 10 percent of those who seek help from a physician, chiropractor or “subspecialist.”

“This can lead a person down a path toward reoccurring back pain and, worse yet, a reliance on prescription medication to mask the discomfort and get through the day,” Cooper added. “And when the cause isn’t fixed, it can sometimes lead to more invasive testing and procedures that may not have been necessary if the root cause had been identified and treated sooner.”

That’s why during this year’s National Physical Therapy Month, medical professionals like Cooper are using the month of October to highlight research that positions physical therapy as an obvious first step in assessing and treating back pain.

This includes:

  • A study published by Health Services Research in May of 2018, which found that those who first consulted with a physical therapist about their low back pain were 89 percent less likely to receive an opioid prescription.
  • A 2015 study published in BMC Health Services, a health care journal, which said that many of the medical costs associated with back pain – costs that reach $86 billion annually, according to the National Institutes of Health – can be reduced by up to 60 percent when the patient sees a physical therapist early.
  • A 2016 study in JAMA (Journal of American Medical Association) Internal Medicine, which found that exercise reduced the risk of repeated low-back pain by between 25 and 40 percent.

As defined by the National Physical Therapy Association, physical therapists are highly educated, licensed health care professionals who help patients reduce pain and improve or restore mobility – in many cases without surgery and often reducing the need for long-term use of prescription medication.

“Regardless of who you are, where you’re from or what you do for work or fun, back pain can have a way of sneaking up on you,” Cooper said. “A physical therapist can provide you with a different, yet very effective treatment path significantly reducing the risks and costs associated with advanced imaging and prescription medication.”

This involves determining the root cause of the pain which may be from a dysfunctional body segment adjacent to or potentially further away from the back (i.e. hip or ankle). Developing an individualized treatment plan that focuses on both short-term pain relief and long-term functional mobility, strength and ultimately injury prevention is what physical therapists do every day. Treatment paths can include manual therapy, strength and flexibility exercises, calming modalities and functional training and education.