PT vs. Surgery for Spinal Stenosis

I have heard plenty of people complaining recently about how expensive health care costs are especially after a hospital stay or surgery.  So what if you could avoid an expensive surgery?  

What if you could see a healthcare professional, receive exercises that help to decrease your symptoms, and then utilize the knowledge you learned to manage your symptoms without having to continue to pay for treatment and without having to pay toward a ridiculously high hospital bill?  Well the research shows that physical therapy can be just that remedy versus surgery for spinal stenosis.  If cost is not your concern, then perhaps time is.  When properly managed, patients that undergo back surgery should then be treated with physical therapy for improving function, strength, and stability in the back. 

For those of you who don’t understand what spinal stenosis is, it occurs when there is a narrowing of the spaces between your vertebrae (bones that make up the neck and back) resulting in pressure on the spinal cord or nerves.  This pressure can result in pain, numbness, tingling, or weakness in the arms or legs.  Occasionally, it can also affect bowel and bladder function. 

According to a study recently published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, physical therapy was shown to be just as effective as decompression surgery in terms of relieving symptoms and improving function in individuals with lumbar spinal stenosis.  This means that if you skip the back surgery and attend physical therapy, then your overall outcomes are nearly the same.

In this particular study, the physical therapy regimen that was used followed an evidence-based, standardized program.  Patients were treated with instruction on lumbar flexion (bending forward at the waist) exercises, conditioning exercises (ex. stationary biking or treadmill walking), leg strengthening exercises, and education on avoiding aggravating postures like excessive extension (bending backward).

The most important thing to note is that physical therapy can be used as a cost effective and less risky treatment for low back pain like stenosis.  Before going under the knife, an episode of physical therapy is worth considering.



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