Importance: Low back pain (LBP) is common in primary care. Guidelines recommend delaying referrals for physical therapy.
Objective: To evaluate whether early physical therapy (manipulation and exercise) is more effective than usual care in improving disability for patients with LBP fitting a decision rule.
Design, setting, and participants: Randomized clinical trial with 220 participants recruited between March 2011 and November 2013. Participants with no LBP treatment in the past 6 months, aged 18 through 60 years (mean age, 37.4 years [SD, 10.3]), an Oswestry Disability Index (ODI) score of 20 or higher, symptom duration less than 16 days, and no symptoms distal to the knee in the past 72 hours were enrolled following a primary care visit.
Interventions: All participants received education. Early physical therapy (n = 108) consisted of 4 physical therapy sessions. Usual care (n = 112) involved no additional interventions during the first 4 weeks.
Main outcomes and measures: Primary outcome was change in the ODI score (range: 0-100; higher scores indicate greater disability; minimum clinically important difference, 6 points) at 3 months. Secondary outcomes included changes in the ODI score at 4-week and 1-year follow-up, and change in pain intensity, Pain Catastrophizing Scale (PCS) score, fear-avoidance beliefs, quality of life, patient-reported success, and health care utilization at 4-week, 3-month, and 1-year follow-up.
Results: One-year follow-up was completed by 207 participants (94.1%). Using analysis of covariance, early physical therapy showed improvement relative to usual care in disability after 3 months (mean ODI score: early physical therapy group, 41.3 [95% CI, 38.7 to 44.0] at baseline to 6.6 [95% CI, 4.7 to 8.5] at 3 months; usual care group, 40.9 [95% CI, 38.6 to 43.1] at baseline to 9.8 [95% CI, 7.9 to 11.7] at 3 months; between-group difference, -3.2 [95% CI, -5.9 to -0.47], P = .02). A significant difference was found between groups for the ODI score after 4 weeks (between-group difference, -3.5 [95% CI, -6.8 to -0.08], P = .045]), but not at 1-year follow-up (between-group difference, -2.0 [95% CI, -5.0 to 1.0], P = .19). There was no improvement in pain intensity at 4-week, 3-month, or 1-year follow-up (between-group difference, -0.42 [95% CI, -0.90 to 0.02] at 4-week follow-up; -0.38 [95% CI, -0.84 to 0.09] at 3-month follow-up; and -0.17 [95% CI, -0.62 to 0.27] at 1-year follow-up). The PCS scores improved at 4 weeks and 3 months but not at 1-year follow-up (between-group difference, -2.7 [95% CI, -4.6 to -0.85] at 4-week follow-up; -2.2 [95% CI, -3.9 to -0.49] at 3-month follow-up; and -0.92 [95% CI, -2.7 to 0.61] at 1-year follow-up). There were no differences in health care utilization at any point.
Conclusions and relevance: Among adults with recent-onset LBP, early physical therapy resulted in statistically significant improvement in disability, but the improvement was modest and did not achieve the minimum clinically important difference compared with usual care.
Trial registration: clinicaltrials.gov Identifier: NCT01726803.