Goal of the study?
In this study,1 the purpose is to investigate if the physical therapy (PT) evaluation process of history taking and physical exam results in a meaningful change for patients with low back pain (LBP), even before implementing treatment interventions.
Why are they doing this study?
Low back pain (LBP) is the most widely reported musculoskeletal disorder globally and has significant healthcare expenditures. In the US, LBP accounts for 25% of outpatient physical therapy (PT) visits, with an estimated 170,000 people daily seeing a PT for this issue.
With a shift toward a biopsychosocial model, more focus has been put on the therapeutic alliance (TA) and its impact on patient outcomes. TA is essentially the working social connection between a patient and clinician, blending clinical skills, verbal and non-verbal communication, a sense of warmth, collaboration, and trust. There is increasing evidence that TA and trust play a significant role in patients’ pain outcomes before any formal treatment is started.
What did they do?
This observational study included 34 patients with LBP with/without leg pain who went to four different outpatient PT clinics over a 3-month period. They had one PT at each site do the history taking and physical exam, and a different PT does the outcome measurements. Before the examination, all participants completed a demographic survey, disability index, and outcome measurements, including pain (low back and leg; numeric pain rating scale – NPRS), fear-avoidance beliefs (FABQ), Pain catastrophization (PCS), lumbar flexion, nerve sensitivity – pressure pain thresholds (PPT). After completing this pre-assessment, history taking and physical exams were done on each patient.
All data were analyzed using statistical software.
What did they find?
This study found that for patients with LBP, the process of history taking and a physical exam had a significant therapeutic effect regarding fear-avoidance, pain catastrophization, movement and sensitivity of the nervous system. However, while some changes met or exceeded clinically significant differences, these were not correlated to physical exam duration and perceived connection by the PT.
Following history taking, the authors also found that NPRS for leg pain, PCS, trunk flexion, and PPT measurements showed a significant change from the initial intake. While adding a physical exam generated some improvement, only active trunk flexion and PPT for the low back were significantly improved compared to the measurements after history taking alone. Overall, they found that history taking resulted in the most significant changes seen in the evaluation process. The authors suggest that in line with existing research, this finding may result from the fact that history-taking happens at first contact and therefore provides an opportunity for a connection to alleviate patient fears and establish a TA.
They did not find that the PT’s connection with the patient altered changes in pain or function.
The main limitation of this study is the study design. Being observational, the findings cannot speak to any causal relationships between the changes and outcome measures. Additionally, as there were no strict controls on the history taking and physical exam, with each PT doing them their own way may have affected the findings.
Why do these findings matter?
Understanding what factors provide the most significant treatment outcomes for patients with LBP can help address patient pain and function and reduce overall healthcare costs.