A new study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine has found that physiotherapy is ‘just as effective’ for reducing back pain as an operation.
Findings suggest it is particularly useful for helping to combat symptoms of lumbar spinal stenosis – the leading cause of back pain among the elderly.
This condition causes shooting pains, tingling and numbness in the lower back, bottom and legs, and in some cases can be so severe people have trouble walking and controlling their bladder and bowel functions.
It occurs due to a compression of nerves in the back. This happens because the spinal canal narrows with age – as discs, vertebrae, muscles and ligaments wear away.
So far only surgery has proven beneficial for relieveing symptoms – until now.
Researchers in the US conducted their study into physiotherapy for back pain over a five-year period. Between 2000 and 2005 they followed the progress of 169 patients who were receiving treatment for lumbar spinal stenosis. While 87 patients had surgery, 82 received physiotherapy (twice weekly sessions over a period of six weeks).
At the start of the study the patients were at least 50 years-old and had no underlying medical conditions. They were only mildly active – some leading primarily sedentary lives – and were overweight.
After two years, results showed that patients from both groups showed significant improvement in symptoms.
Dr Jeffrey Katz, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said: “The study demonstrates that both surgery and physical therapy are reasonable choices; the person who goes down either path ends up in the same place a year or two later.”
Although it is standard to operate on elderly patients with lumbar spinal stenosis, Dr Katz believes it will be more effective to try physiotherapy first.
Lumbar spinal stenosis is the leading cause of surgery in the elderly, so opting for physiotherapy as a treatment will help to reduce complications.
Study researcher, Dr Anthony Delitto – of the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh – said: “Surgery is a riskier procedure, with about a 15% complication rate, and half of those are life-threatening.
“It isn’t a life-risking procedure to do physiotherapy.”