Physical Therapy as Effective as Surgery in Lumbar Spinal Stenosis

Physical TherapyAnthony Delitto, PT, PhD and colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh published an article in the April 7, 2015 Annals of Internal Medicine documenting that at the two year mark, physical therapy was as effective as surgical decompression in spinal stenosis of the lumbar spine. The study involved 169 patients diagnosed with spinal stenosis with imaging confirmation by either CT Scan or MRI. These patients all met the accepted criteria for surgical intervention, all had agreed to and signed consent for surgery and all had leg pain with walking (neurogenic claudication). None of the patients had previous back surgery.

After all had consented to surgery they were randomly assigned to a surgical group or a physical therapy group that had exercise sessions twice a week for 6 weeks. They were then followed for two years. The physical therapy exercises included general conditioning plus lumbar flexion exercises.

All the participants charted their course with a self- reported survey of physical function which consisted of scores from zero to 100 on topics such as pain, function and mental health. The patients were all reassessed at 10 weeks, 6 months, 12 months and 24 months.

There was no difference between the surgical group and the physical therapy groups in the category of physical function at any time during the follow-up. Despite this 47 of the 82 patients assigned to the physical therapy group crossed over and had surgery with nearly a third in the first ten weeks. Patients crossed over to surgery for both medical and financial reasons citing the high cost of copays for physical therapy. Jeffrey Katz, MD, director or the Orthopedic and Arthritis Center at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston felt that the paper “suggests that a strategy of starting with an active, standardized physical therapy regimen results in similar outcomes to immediate decompressive surgery over the first several years.”

This paper gives us excellent data on the belief that surgery of the back should be a last resort. Since it doesn’t follow the patients for more than two years it is hoped that continued follow-up over time will allow us to see the real life situation we see in our patients who live with this condition for decades not months.

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