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Why Should You See a Physical Therapist First for Pain?

Why Should You See a Physical Therapist First for Pain?

by Tony Matoska PT, DPT, CMPT1 Comment

In all likelihood, there will come a time in our lives where we find ourselves in pain. Traditionally, if you weren’t able to manage the pain yourself, you would schedule an appointment with your doctor or seek out an orthopedic surgeon to have them assess you. However, numerous studies show a strong benefit of seeking out physical therapy first when dealing with musculoskeletal pain1,3. Musculoskeletal pain refers to pain in the muscles, tendons, bones, joints, ligaments and nerves of the body.

According to the research, there are significantly more healthcare costs associated with the traditional approach to dealing with musculoskeletal pain compared to seeking physical therapy first4. This is due to a variety of reasons including work days missed, medications, or other interventions or procedures prescribed1,3. This is part of the reason direct access to physical therapy is so important. Direct access laws give patients the ability to see a physical therapist without the need for a referral or prescription from their physician before starting treatment. Direct access laws have been established in many states, including Arizona, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin. To learn more about Direct Access, read our “Physical Therapy without a Prescription” blog.

Can physical therapists properly diagnose the cause of pain?

According to research, the accuracy of clinical diagnosis by a physical therapist for musculoskeletal pain is higher compared to non-orthopedic healthcare providers, including family care, internal medicine and emergency room physicians. Physical therapists are also trained to determine when an injury or condition may fall outside their scope of practice so that they can make a referral to a specialist when warranted2.

What are the benefits of seeing your physical therapist first for musculoskeletal pain?

As mentioned earlier, one of the most significant benefits to patients who seek physical therapy first is the potential for overall cost savings. It is estimated that cost savings can add up to $2,700 for those who see their physical therapist first for treatment. What’s more, studies have found that patients who choose physical therapy as their first treatment option may avoid medical imaging, follow up visits, medications, specialty referrals, and other interventions such as injections or surgery.1, 3 Cost savings also add up for patients who may need to miss fewer days of work and a decreased likelihood of being admitted into the hospital as a result of a worsening condition from not from seeking a doctor first.1, 3

Additional benefits that studies have found for those seeking physical therapy as a first treatment option include better outcomes, less subsequent care, higher patient satisfaction and a faster return to full function1, 3.

The last major benefit of seeking physical therapy as your first treatment option is the quick access to care. At Athletico, all patients are scheduled within 24-48 hours after their initial request for appointment. Moreover, Athletico offers more than 500 clinics nationwide with convenient locations and flexible hours.

Why not try a free assessment?

If you are unsure about physical therapy, but currently dealing with pain – schedule a free assessment. Our team will take a look at your condition and provide recommendations for treatment – for free, which may include starting physical therapy the same day.

Free assessments are available both in-clinic and virtually through our telehealth platform.

Free Assessment

The Athletico blog is an educational resource written by Athletico employees. Athletico bloggers are licensed professionals who abide by the code of ethics outlined by their respective professional associations. The content published in blog posts represents the opinion of the individual author based on their expertise and experience. The content provided in this blog is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice and should not be relied on for making personal health decisions.

1. Ojha, H. A., et al. “Direct Access Compared With Referred Physical Therapy Episodes of Care: A Systematic Review.” Physical Therapy, vol. 94, no. 1, 12 Sept. 2013, pp. 14–30, 10.2522/ptj.20130096. Accessed 10 Oct. 2019.
2. Moore, Josef H., et al. “Clinical Diagnostic Accuracy and Magnetic Resonance Imaging of Patients Referred by Physical Therapists, Orthopaedic Surgeons, and Nonorthopaedic Providers.” Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, vol. 35, no. 2, Feb. 2005, pp. 67–71, 10.2519/jospt.2005.35.2.67. Accessed 8 Jan. 2020.
3. Pendergast, Jane, et al. “A Comparison of Health Care Use for Physician-Referred and Self-Referred Episodes of Outpatient Physical Therapy.” Health Services Research, vol. 47, no. 2, 23 Sept. 2011, pp. 633–654,, 10.1111/j.1475-6773.2011.01324.x. Accessed 8 Jan. 2020.
4. Fritz, Julie M., et al. “Primary Care Referral of Patients With Low Back Pain to Physical Therapy.” Spine, vol. 37, no. 25, Dec. 2012, pp. 2114–2121, 10.1097/brs.0b013e31825d32f5. Accessed 11 Oct. 2019.

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1 Comment

  1. Kristofer Van Wagner

    I like that this post mentioned that physical therapy is excellent for those who are looking to undergo rehabilitation. The other day my wife complained of backaches. I will advise her to see a physical therapist.

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