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My journey is not your journey

“don’t you dare compare your beginning with someone else’s middle“

I can see how this happens frequently, even in my own profession as a PT.

I hear it from new graduates, “we can’t all know as much research as you do.”

I hear that and I get pissed.

I wasn’t born with research inputted into my brain.

I wasn’t spoon fed the research through lectures.

I spent hours per week reading.

When I hear others tell me that they can’t do it…I think that you have other priorities. That’s fine, but don’t attempt to demean my priorities. Don’t try to knock me down so that you feel better about yourself, because I won’t have it.

My need to become better at my profession was a stronger force than most other priorities in my life, at the time.

Needless to say, my priorities weren’t well organized for the person I am today.

The issue that I see is that I looked at others in managerial positions and thought, I could do that.

I looked at people that were owning businesses and thought, “I could do that”.

I don’t want to do that.

I don’t want to be tied to my profession with the same short leash that I had my first 5-8 years.

I want more freedom to spend time with the kids (in small doses of course).

I want more freedom to be able to watch 3-4 hours of wrestling per week (don’t judge, we all have our indulgences that we would rather not do away with).

Now, I only have to do what I need to do to take care of my family and what I want to do to be happy. It took decades to grow into this person.

Don’t compare your journey to mine and I won’t compare my journey to others.

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Work/time = something

“ I mean that you focus in on the dream you have, you do the work, you put in the hours, and you stop feeling guilty about it!“

I quit the hospital the second time to move to Virginia. It was a great time! It lasted a whole weekend (seriously my address was Fairfax, Virginia for a whole two days). I quit the hospital on a Thursday. I was back on a train to Chicago and then the Rock Island to Mokena by Sunday.

Needless to say, I called FW at Palos Hospital and was back to work at the hospital the next week. Although it seemed like a short vacation that I was away from the hospital, because I put in my notice, I lost all of my seniority, which included vacation time. Not a huge deal though because they hired me at the hourly rate i was receiving when I quit. I got a 90 day raise after my probationary period ended.

Another small detail is that I returned home having filed for divorce.

This whole story was to tell one small detail. I actually obtained a job in Virginia, one in which I never started but did the interviews. Virginia was, at the time, a direct access state for anyone that had a DPT. Without a DPT (doctorate degree in physical therapy) a PT could not see a patient “off the street” unless he/she took a differential diagnosis course.

I realized that the DPT has a little value. At that point I decided that I was going to obtain a DPT degree. (In hindsight, I could’ve just as easily taken the differential diagnosis course, but having moved back to IL without any furniture or television set, I had nothing better to do with my time. Literally, I thought to myself…I got some time to kill and the hospital agreed to pay $3,000 per year…I might as go get a Doctorate degree). The coursework for the DPT was relatively easy, but time consuming. I am proud that I did this and obtained the DPT. Not because of the title, but because now I can argue both ends of the argument regarding the DPTs worth; it only cost me $5K over three years.

In the end, I keep it simple.

“Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming”

Taking a jump

“ in fact, when you understand that you don’t have to justify your dreams to anyone else for any reason, that’s the day you truly begin to step into what you’re meant to be.“

I’m going to agree to disagree on this one. As you heard before, I made quick changes in my career without consulting my then wife…that relationship ended.

Although I don’t have to justify my dreams, I have to justify my decisions to my family. Making a quick jump, or even a well-thought-out jump, to satisfy my dream may not be worth it if the dream adversely affects family finance or security.

For instance, I quit the hospital the third time (that’s right, they took me back a second and third time) in order to chase a dream of managing my own clinic. I took a stupid pay cut in order to do this. I chose to cut my own pay by almost 20%. Not only that, I quit the cushy hospital job to go manage a clinic that was easily losing $100K per year. After 6 months of following my dream…reality set in. My wife said that I had to make a decision of opening my own clinic and leaving this one or going to find a job.

That was a smart move on her part. Although I increased the number of patients that were coming into the clinic by a little over 10%, it still wasn’t enough to justify the overhead that I inherited and the salary that I was getting. I was averaging about 28 visits per week, but that amount of money barely covered the overhead. There was no chance of profiting any time soon. Because of that, there was no chance of getting a raise any time soon. Mind you, during this time period I was also ranked in an honorable

https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.updocmedia.com/2017-top-40-influencers/amp/

Class by my peers. This was my opportunity to advance my lot in life. I am now making about 10% more than when I left the hospital and this year will mark my break even point. Every week after this year marks a betterment than where I was when working for the hospital. The cool thing is that I am still following my initial dream because I now have my own company, am managing patients the way I feel appropriate, and have created close relationships with many physicians and the community I serve. This was what I set out to do when I initially left the hospital.

Don’t get me wrong, Palos Hospital was a great place to work. I worked with an unbelievable team in which we all respected each other’s strengths and there were no egos on the team. (I say that because I may have had the biggest ego at the time so no one else appeared to have an ego in comparison.) None of us would hesitate to reach out to another PT or PTA if we were stuck with a patient. I have always recommended anyone to take a job there if they have the opportunity. My chief complaint with the hospital was that there was no chance of advancing one’s career, and I was looking for more.

If I never took that chance to chase a dream, I would still be in a job that I was frustrated with, although more changes were made after I left which may have satisfied my need for change. If my wife didn’t have that conversation about the reality of finances, I may still be trying to steer a sinking ship that I inevitably had no control over.

I now am in a spot to have more control and am avale to support my family while advancing my career, community involvement, and education of peers.

Patients pay for services

Anyone that says that people won’t part with money are delusional. We know that people are paying cash for PT services. We know that people are meeting their deductibles and paying copays/coinsurance.

As professionals, we have to figure out how to educate patients on

1. Solving their problems

2. Understanding the true costs of healthcare.

Patients first purchase our services because of a few reasons

1. They were referred to us by their physician.

2. They are referred to us by their friends/family

3. They hear about us from internet searches

4. They choose us blindly

Regardless of how they find us, we have to give them value when they come to us.

For instance, my mom had therapy at one of the big chains a few years back. She said that she would only be able to attend PT twice per week, but the PT has her sign up for 3x/week. What do you think happened?

She canceled her appointment once per week…because that’s exactly what she said that she would do when asked about frequency.

Instead of listening to the patient and scheduling 2x/week, they scheduled 3x/week and after 3 weeks they discharged her for non-compliance.

Who was in the wrong? Was the clinic providing value…maybe? Did they listen to the patient and establish expectations and alliance…nope.

The value of the session always lies with the receiver and not the giver.

Many of us tho I ourselves to be rockstars…me included, but take this piece of advice from “The Rock“.

What matters is what the patients think and how they perceive the service. They are the ones paying for the service. We have to establish the expectation with the patient and then…deliver.

They will part with their money in these situations. We just have to follow the basics.

Cualquiera que diga que la gente no se separará del dinero es delirante. Sabemos que las personas están pagando en efectivo por los servicios de PT. Sabemos que las personas alcanzan sus deducibles y pagan copagos / coseguros.

Como profesionales, tenemos que descubrir cómo educar a los pacientes sobre

1. Resolviendo sus problemas

2. Comprender los verdaderos costos de la atención médica.

Los pacientes primero compran nuestros servicios por algunas razones

1. Nos los remitió su médico.

2. Son referidos a nosotros por sus amigos / familiares

3. Se enteran de nosotros por búsquedas en internet

4. Nos eligen ciegamente

Independientemente de cómo nos encuentren, tenemos que darles valor cuando vengan a nosotros.

Por ejemplo, mi madre recibió terapia en una de las grandes cadenas hace unos años. Ella dijo que solo podría asistir al PT dos veces por semana, pero el PT tiene su inscripción por 3 veces por semana. ¿Qué crees que pasó?

Ella canceló su cita una vez por semana … porque eso es exactamente lo que dijo que haría cuando se le preguntara sobre la frecuencia.

En lugar de escuchar a la paciente y programar 2 veces por semana, programaron 3 veces por semana y después de 3 semanas la dieron de alta por incumplimiento.

¿Quién estaba equivocado? ¿La clínica estaba aportando valor … tal vez? ¿Escucharon al paciente y establecieron expectativas y alianza … no?

El valor de la sesión siempre recae en el receptor y no en el donante.

Muchos de nosotros pensamos que somos estrellas de rock … yo incluido, pero tomo este consejo de “The Rock”.

Lo que importa es lo que piensan los pacientes y cómo perciben el servicio. Ellos son los que pagan por el servicio. Tenemos que establecer la expectativa con el paciente y luego … entregar.

Se separarán con su dinero en estas situaciones. Solo tenemos que seguir lo básico.

PT in the pandemic

The physical therapy profession is frequently ranked in the top xyz jobs in the country. Looking at the statistics above, we are seeing that the field may reach saturation in my lifetime.

The previous data doesn’t take into account new school openings, which in my state is projected to graduate an additional 120 PTs per year. This doesn’t take into account the 210+ PTs that already graduate in the set of IL per year.

I write this during the COVID pandemic, which sees many PTs out of work, furloughed or laid off. I can remember during the housing crises of 2008, I thought that I was in a recession-proof job. We are seeing now that this is not the case. I thought that even in the worst times that I would be able to keep my salary steady and have increased buying power during these down times…I was wrong.

There are only certain jobs, in our profession, that are safe during the pandemic. Outpatient physical therapy is not among those types of jobs.

This pandemic will change much in our profession. We are seeing the rapid growth of telehealth. We are seeing more patients agree to in-home PT. We are seeing “mill PT clinics” transition to one-one care because of safety concerns regarding seeing more than 1 patient at a time.

There are many opportunities for PTs that are not afraid of work. There are many challenges for those that haven’t accepted the fact that this profession has to be more than the 9-5.

How will you change your outlook for the career due to the pandemic?

What do you think will happen to our profession in the future because of the pandemic?

Finally, how are you improving your skills to make yourself more recession-proof in the future?

modified STarT Back Tool

“For example, individuals at a low risk of persistent disabled problems can be reassured and discouraged from receiving unnecessary treatments and investigations, while those at high risk can matched to treatment which combines physical and psychological approaches”

For those of you that haven’t read my previous posts on the Start Back Screening Tool, then this first post may not make sense. It is recommended to read those posts before reading this post.

In short, some patients improve without treatment, with simple advice to stay active.

“In addition, an implementation study testing risk stratification for patients with low back pain in routine general practice demonstrated significant improvements in physical function and time off work, sickness certification rates and reductions in healthcare costs compared to usual non-stratified care.”

Who knew? 🤷‍♂️

If we start classifying patients, we tend to get better results.

This should be a no-brained. Two different patients with similar pains may respond completely different to treatments. We need to be able to determine which type of intervention/or lack of intervention is best paired with each type of patient.

Until we get better at understanding the patient and both the patient’s response to movement and belief systems, we will continue to fail a percentage of these patients when they come into the clinic. Some patients will improve regardless of the intervention/treatment.

“GPs are not alone in wanting information about patients’ likely prognosis over time, as >80% of musculoskeletal patients also want prognostic information from their GO, although less than a third actually receive this information”

The fact that almost 1/3 of patients receive information from their physician is surprising to me. With shortened face time with physicians and the incentive to refer within the system in which the GPs operate, I’m surprised that there is enough time to spend educating even 1/3 of patients.

We know that patients want information. What is bothersome to me is that some practitioners, throughout healthcare as a whole, give patients flippant answers without substance. These patients then hang on to that information and allow it to dictate how they live or avoid living life.

To tell a patient with osteoporosis that they will fracture their spine when flexing can produce fear of a movement and greatly impact the patients quality of life. Giving the patient statistics about fracturing, not just with bending but also with staying neutral, allows the patient to have a more active role in decision-making.

The last thing we want to do is to label a patient, or cause a patient to label themself, as having “big bones”, slipped discs, degenerative spines, or as many of my patients say “Uncle Arthur”.

“The distribution of primary pain regions was reported by clinicians as: lower limb 31.1%, Back 28.7%, upper limb 23.5%, neck 11.8%, and multisite pain 4.8%”

The modified STarT Back tool is a version explores more options than back pain only.

“…a modified STarT Back Tool is similarly predictive of 6-month physical health across different musculoskeletal pain regions.”

This type of prognostic data is important for healthcare providers to obtain in order to build a long-term plan for patients beyond simply 3 times per week for 6 weeks of therapy.

What happens to patients after this six weeks?

If we have not educated and empowered the patient, they will become a patient again.

“This implies that the existing STarT Back Tool score cut-point (4 or more out of 9) used to allocate patients with low back pain to the medium-risk/high-risk subgroups cannot simply became applied to patients with other musculoskeletal pain presentations or in different clinical services”

This is pretty self-explanatory. We can’t use a back tool to help us make decisions about a knee pain, neck pain, headache, etc.

“It is found that regardless of body region of pain, higher modified STarT Back Tool scores were associated with higher levels of kinesiophobia, catastrophising, fear avoidance, anxiety and depressive symptoms.”

Kinesiophobia is fear of movement. Catastrophising is making a bigger deal out of a situation than it actually is. Fear avoidance is actively avoiding an activity for fear of making oneself worse.

None of these descriptors are good, but you know what…we work with them in physical therapy.

Let me say this differently…a good physical therapist will work on these issues, but not all address these issues.

For more information on projects that I am working on, please visit my podcast

Article

Go to Physical Therapy to be Physical…think again

“affecting 60% to 80% of individuals during their lifetime”

This statistic gets thrown around so much that all PTs should know this without thinking about it.

LBP is such a common occurrence that many non-healthcare professionals are giving advice about how to fix it.

I was at a fundraiser recently and I heard people talking about back pain as part of the conversations had between laypeople. This is how prevalent that it has become, discussions of back pain have made their way into everyday conversation. Everyone and their mother has a remedy for it.

I heard about cutting out sugars, rolling on tennis balls and soaking in Epsom salt. It wasn’t until someone in the group turned to me (they had a previous knowledge of the website) that people stopped giving advice and started asking for information.

The public wants information. On that note, if you’ve found any information from this website helpful…please share it so others can learn.

“total annual direct healthcare costs in the United States incurred by patients with LBP were estimated at $90 billion in 1998, 60% higher than individuals without LBP.”

🤔

Sounds like we can start to create a change in total costs if we could just be better at treating this issue.

Back pain is top 5 reasons a person seeks out a healthcare provider.

We are spending so much money on this problem…you’d think we’d be making a dent in the number of people with back pain, and the expenses incurred for this ailment.

Nope!

Reading the rest of this post will start to shed light on why our system, as a whole, has a lot of sucky (scientific term 👍) parts.

“Recent reports suggest that the use of physical therapy for patients with LBP is increasing.”

This makes so many people tho I that our profession (as a PT) is booming. Yes, there is a bigger pool of patients daily, but insurance payments have been decreasing for decades.

This is a different conversation, but it also plays a role in why clinicians may choose on intervention over another.

Soapbox

***For instance, if there are 3 people in the clinic at the same time (which could be considered fraudulent if this is occurring for patients using Medicare as insurance), the therapist has to make the patient perform some activities independently (which also should not be billed for patients with Medicare) or they would have to place the patient on a non-effective piece of equipment in order to be paid, while the PT works with another patient. ***

It then makes sense that the use of PT is increasing if we are performing ineffective techniques in order to maximize reimbursement. Not all PTs operate in this fashion, but if the above scenario sounds familiar…go get a second, third or fourth opinion.

“…Consistent in recommending an active approach to pair with emphasis on maintaining and promoting activity, while avoiding passive interventions such as bed rest or physical methods (heat/cold, ultrasound, etc.)”

Look folks, doing nothing gets you nothing. We know this in many aspects of life. Don’t work, don’t get paid. This is no different.

If the patient doesn’t play an active role in the process of rehabilitation, the results tend to be no better than doing nothing…because that’s exactly what the patient is doing in many cases.

For instance, if a patient goes to physical therapy and the patient lays there while “therapy” is performed on the patient, then the patient has little active role aside from showing up and paying.

This has become such a problem in our profession that our national organization had to come up with a short read to help patients understand what generic therapy look like during an episode of care.

“…Adherence to this recommendation for an active approach was associated with better clinical outcomes of physical therapy, with fewer visits in lower charges for care.”

If a patient learns a home program that has been shown, in the clinic, to be effective at reducing that specific patient’s complaint, why should that patient go to a physical therapy session to get unproven passive treatment or to simply repeat the same exercises over and over?

I’ll wait for your response…because I don’t know the answer to this question aside from the fact that increasing a patient’s frequency in therapy also increases the total profits of the company benefitting from the therapy.

“… it is now understood that the natural history of LBP includes subsequent periods of exacerbation and recurrence for most individuals.”

A high percentage of patients, anywhere from 25% up to 80%, experience multiple periods of low back pain during the lifespan.

How one defines recurrence has a huge role in how this number is determined. It used to be that researchers would look at a group of patients with low back pain and then see how many of them had back pain one year later. The problem with this approach is that for many of the patients, the pain never went away from the first episode.

How can this be classified as a recurrence if it never went away?!

Better questions were then asked and about 25% of patients experience at least a period of one month of relief before having a recurrence.

Because of this, it is prudent for the PT (physical therapist, not personal trainer) to teach the patient how to self-manage and to reduce as many risk factors that one particular patient has for developing back pain in the future.

“The ratio of active: passive codes had to be at least 3:1 for each phase, and every visit had to have at least one active code for the patient care to be considered inherent to guideline recommendations.”

I think that this is very conservative.

This means that for each hour a patient is seen, anywhere from 8-22 minutes are spent on manual (hands on) therapy, ultrasound, electrical stimulation, heat, ice.

The other 38-52 minutes are spent working on balance, exercise, returning to a functional activity.

This type of scenario would allow for 3 units of an active charge (75% of the session) and 1 unit of a passive charge (25% of the session).

Keep in mind, a clinician doesn’t have to follow this type of ratio, but a higher ratio of passive treatment is not consistent with the guidelines of treating patients with back pain.

“Consistent with previous studies, a successful outcome was defined as achieving at least 50% improvement on the 0SW – disability score.”

I’ve seen many patients that have gone through an episode of care without any relief before coming to see me in the clinic. For patients to get a 50% improvement in symptoms and ability to live the life they want, many would be happy with that outcome. In the research, we see as little as a 2-3 point change being considered significant when using the (pain scale). A 50% improvement is considered significant.

“471 patients with LBP met the criteria for inclusion. (18-60y, at least 3 visits of PT, duration of PT at least 10 days, initial OSW >10%, and no surgery recorded)”

This simply shows that there were a large number of patients that could be studied.

The inclusion criteria is important because it’s hard to take a study and apply it to a patient that doesn’t fit the inclusion criteria. For instance, this study included people from age 18-60. The results of the study may not apply to those under the age of 18 or over the age of 60.

Also, the study may not be applicable to those that experienced a back surgery.

“132 patients (28.0%) received adherent care and 339 (72.0%) received non-adherent care.”

Less than 1/3 received care that was consistent adherent to an active plan of care. This is disturbing!

This means that many patients going to therapy are having treatment DONE TO THEM instead of DONE WITH THEM!

There are many treatments that can be billed without the therapist directly treating the patient one-one. For instance, mechanical traction can be performed while the therapist is treating another patient. Other treatments that can be performed while the PT is treating another patient is “electrical stimulation”, moist heat and cold packs.

“Patient receiving adherent care experience greater improvement in disability, and pain intensity, and were more likely to experience a successful physical therapy outcome than patient receiving nonadherent care.”

This literally means that when patients are doing more for themselves, they get more from PT. It doesn’t have to be hard.

The PT should act as the guide in order to introduce the patient into a more pain-free, more functional and self-sustaining state. If the PT is acting as the “hero” of your story and not the “guide” in your story, it may be time to find another PT.

“Patient receiving adherent care also attended fewer physical therapy visits, had a shorter length of stay, and lower charges for physical therapy care.”

Fewer therapy visits = less money!

Is it getting easier to see why some clinics are more than happy to perform traction and electrical stimulation to patients?

💵💸💰

In the end, the patients are rarely at the center of care. Physical therapy is also is a business. Businesses function based on profit.

When you find a PT that treats you as a patient and not a $$$, then you have found the right person.

“296 patients (62.8%) had billed charges for additional healthcare related to the management of LBP in the 1-year period After completion of the physical therapy episode of care.”

It is common for patients with back pain to go to multiple providers, such as pain management, orthopedic surgeons, chiropractors and other PTs in order to seek treatment throughout the year.

“Receiving adherent care was associated with decreased use of prescription medication…also associated with a decreased likelihood of receiving diagnostic imaging procedures…associated with decrease use of MRI”

This is simply saying that when patients do more activity in physical therapy (PT), that the patient is less likely to seek out imaging.

There could be many reasons for this outside of just being active in therapy. This is purely conjecture, but if the therapist is able to educate the patient on when imaging is needed and the patient buys in, then it may have a rom in future imaging.

If the therapist demonstrates to the patient that they are strong and robust through the exercises or movements performed in therapy, then the patient may believe that the injury is less severe than initially believed.

If the therapist can change the patients belief system in order to understand that what is seen in imaging may not give them the answer they are looking for, the patient may be less likely to get imaging.

The one constant in all of this is the patient-PT relationship. It may be harder to foster that patient in an environment where multiple patients are being seen at the same time compared to when a patient is seen one-one.

These are great questions to ask when calling a PT clinic to inquire about treatment prior to actually signing up

1. How comfortable are your PTs at treating LBP

2. Do I need to use electrical stimulation and how many patients is this used on in your clinic?

3. Will the therapist be treating more than one patient at a time?

You have the right to this information prior to signing up. If you don’t care about this information, then don’t bother. If it is important to you that you have the individual attention you are paying for…ask away.

“Similar to other healthcare providers, it appears that physical therapy care for patients with LBP is characterized by widespread and unwarranted variations in practice”

We see PTs using craniosacral therapy , dry needling, MDT and other methods/interventions to treat back pain. Because of the variability, it is imperative that the PT ask about previous treatments because there is no common standard with physical therapy.

“…it may be surprising that adherence to an active approach has been reported to be low in studies of both primary care physicians and physical therapists”

Nope! ❌🙅‍♂️

When determining what interventions have the least amount of friction in order to get paid, the passive interventions win every time.

It’s unfortunate, but until insurance based physical therapy is linked to total costs for the treatment issued to a patient (such as a large lump sum issued to the clinic at the beginning of the year in order to manage a patients physical therapy needs and complaints), we will continue to see passive treatments as they reimburse with little time spent with patients.

Excerpts from:

Fritz JM, Cleland JA, Speckman M et al. Physical Therapy for Acute Low Back Pain: Associations with Subsequent Healthcare Costs. Spine. 2008;33:1800-1805.



Start Back Screening Tool

“Lifetime prevalence for LBP (low back pain) has been reported to be between 60% and 95% and 34% of the participants in a large population study in Norway reported to have had LBP last week”

These numbers are scary, but are consistent with other published research that notes about 80% of the population will have back pain at some point in life. Think of how lucky you would have to be to go an entire lifetime without having back pain based on these numbers?

It can happen, as I’ve seen patients in their 80’s with a first time occurrence of back pain.

The part that is sad for me, as a PT, is that less than 10% of these people will ever get in to see a PT for back pain.

“Due to the lack of diagnostic tests that can identify objective signs of the condition, most of the patients are characterized as having ‘non-specific LBP'”

If you’re not familiar with the numbers, it has been said that any diagnosis trying to name a specific tissue (disc herniation, arthritis, spondylisthesis, spinal stenosis etc) is only correct about 10% of the time. The more severe the diagnosis the more likely that the specific tissue is the correct diagnosis (such as a tumor, spinal cord injury, infection).

Because of this, a majority (90%) of back pain is just labeled as “non-specific low back pain”. The problem with this is that the treatment for a non-specific problem tends to be…non-specific.

Don’t get me wrong, a majority of back pain doesn’t need much treatment, if any at all, and tends to improve over the course of 6 weeks. Some pains from the back require a specific treatment and a treatment outside of this Specific treatment can worsen symptoms.

This means that we have to actually attempt to classify a patient’s presentation. Understand please that a classification is not a diagnosis but instead more of putting the symptoms into a non-specific “bucket” that most resemble that presentation. For instance, there could be a bucket for fast changing, slow changing and unchanging. There could be buckets for a primarily psychosocial component, chemical component or a bio mechanical component.

“Based on the SBT (Keele Start Back Tool) scores, patients can be categorized into three subgroups: patients with low, medium, or high risk for developing persistent LBP and activity limitations….the low risk group should receive minor attention from health professionals and self management strategies are recommended for these patients. The medium risk group should be offered physiotherapy. For the high risk group more psychologically informed interventions are recommended”

This statement may upset some of my colleagues in PT, but we aren’t always needed for patients that experience back pain. For instance, it is advocated to see a PT if you have pain lingering more than a couple of Days. I’m not sure I completely agree with this, as much back pain reduces spontaneously. The last thing you, as the patient should want is to pay for unneeded treatments. The last thing that I want to do as a PT is to take a patients money if I am not needed at that time.

Again, don’t get me wrong there is a group of patients, with back pain, that should be treated by a Physical Therapist. These patients will score higher on the Start Back Screening Tool.

With that said, it is important that the patient be classified correctly within the first 6 weeks of experiencing symptoms. Some research demonstrates an early classification is beneficial and others demonstrate that it should be done within 6 weeks of symptoms. The reason for this is that the patient may benefit from more psychologically informed interventions, which should be performed by someone with

“To be useful as a screening tool in physiotherapy practice, it is important that the SBT-scoring is reliable and that the allocation to risk groups reflects the severity of the patients back problems.”

There are two things that we look at in terms of performing testing. One, is the test valid. This means does the test actually tell us what we think it tells us.

The second thing is reliability. This means that if I have multiple therapist from different settings performing the same exact task, would I get similar or exact scoring if performed on the same exact patient by different therapists.

“The SBT consists of nine items; referred leg pain, comorbid pain, disability, bothersomeness, catastrophizing, fear, anxiety, and depression…. The total score range from 0 to9, with nine indicating worst prognosis. The last five items are summarized into a psychosocial sub scale with five as the maximal score, indicating high risk for development of chronic LBP”

For more information about scoring, I personally like to use the Shirley Ryan website of outcome measures found here.

“Patients with a total score of 0-3 are classified as low risk (minimal treatment, eg self-management strategies).

I use this tool frequently in PT. I rarely have patients score a 3 or less, but this may be because they are already filtered out by the physician in primary care.

I recently had a patient score a 3 and lo and behold his symptoms were abolished in 6 weeks without intervention.

It’s a small sample size, but it seems to match the research.

To summarize: the STarT Back Screening Tool is an option to utilize in practice in order to determine if a patient

1. Requires little/no intervention and will return to prior level of function (PLOF) through regression to the mean (time > interventions).

2. Requires PT/Rehab only

3. Requires a more psychologically intensive approach to care.

Click here for original research article.

STarT Back Screening tool revisited

“…changes in psychosocial risk factors during the course of treatment may provide important information for a patient’s long-term prognosis”

As professionals, we should be performing repeated assessments of patients during the plan of care (POC) and not waiting until the patient is ready for discharge (either because their benefits have been exhausted, the insurance company dictates that an assessment needs to be performed or the patient self-discharged). Performing repeated assessments throughout the POC allows us, as professionals, to understand if the patient is improving, worsening or remaining unchanged with care and to assist us in modifying the POC.

The STarT Back Screening Tool is one method of assessing psychosocial factors that may impede rehab potential.

“… repeated assessments during an episode of care can also provide valuable information about changes in a given variable that can be used for treatment monitoring”

Utilizing a standardized approach to assessing a patient will enable the professional (PT in my case) to determine if a patient is catastrophizing, losing hope, or requires the assistance of a more psychologically focused treatment approach.

“The STarT Back Tool (SBT) is a Screening questionnaire consisting of nine items related to physical and psychosocial statements that are used to categorize patients based on risk (low, medium, or high) for persistent LBP-related disability.”

Here is a copy of the tool in question.

“Wideman et al found that early changes in SBT scores were predictive of four month treatment related changes in several relevant psychological and clinical outcome measures.”

This is a little different than what is expected from an outcome tool. For instance, many tools are utilized to tell the clinician where the patient is at currently and if this patient Hs a risk of developing chronic pain.

When we utilize multiple scores instead of a standalone score, this is indicative of how a patient will progress over the course of time.

“all patients (in this study) were referred for physical therapy by a physician and did not seek physical therapy services through direct access… this setting was considered secondary care.”

This is an important topic. For instance, the previous blog post indicated that the tool gives us information when read minister over a 4-week time period. This indicates that there are changes that occur over the course of 4 weeks.

Many complaints of low back pain improve independently over the course of 6 weeks. If a patient is issued this test at the first visit and classified as low, medium or high, this may lead to an inaccurate classification. Seeing as this study issued the tool to patients in a secondary care (meaning that the patients were referred by a physician) indicates that the patient is not being seen within the first few days of injury.

“1. Aged 18-65 years,

2. Seeking physical therapy for LBP (symptoms are T12 or lower, including radiating pain into the buttocks and lower extremity), and

3. Able to read and speak English”

“treatment was not standardized or tracked in this study and was provided at the discretion of the physical therapist.”

This may also be an issue, as there is a newer study that indicates the treatment interventions may have a role in the patient’s scoring.

Please see the previous post about how to utilize this tool.

“…123 patients (84.2% of the entire sample) who completed the SBT at intake and 4 weeks…The percent of patients for each SBT risk category who were classified differently at intake and four weeks was 81.8% for SBT high risk, 76.0% for SPT medium risk and 11.3% for SBT low risk.”

This indicates that a patient’s initial score should be interpreted with caution because there is a high probability that it will change over the course of 4 weeks.

“most patients either improved (48.8%) or remained stable (40.6%) based on changes in SBT categorization.”

“Thirteen (10.6%) patients were categorized as worsened based on changes in SBT categorization, with six of those patients categorized as SB team high-risk at intake and four weeks later.”

This is interesting to me. Typically, in PT, a therapist will cite regression to the mean. This essentially states that given time the patient will transition from an extreme score towards a more moderate score. This doesn’t account for those that transition from a moderate score towards a more extreme score. To me, this indicates that the episode of care had an effect, albeit a negative effect, on this patient encounter.

Primary findings of this present study were as follows:

1. At over 4 weeks, approximately 11% of patients worsened SBT risk;

2. Clinicians should be less confident in the stability of an intake SBT categorization of high risk than that of medium and low risk;

3. Prediction of 6-month pain intensity scores was not improved when considering intake or 4-week change for SBT categorization; and

4. Prediction of 6-month disability scores was improved when considering intake, 4-week, and 4-week-change SBT categorization”

This indicates that the first measurement may not be a good indication of what will take place with the patient regarding disability over time and some patients can be made worse with therapy. We already knew the second part from previous blog posts.

Excerpts from:

Beneciuk JM, Fritz J, George SZ. The STarT Back Screening Tool for Prediction of 6-month Clinical Outcomes: Relevance of Change Patterns in Outpatient Physical Therapy Settings. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2014;44(9):656-664.

Cervical myelopathy: how to test clinically

“… The onset is often insidious with long periods of episodic, stepwise progression, and may present with a vast array of clinical findings from patient to patient.”

Cervical myelopathy is like neck pain to the extreme. It isn’t just a neck issue, but it ends up encompassing anything below the neck. It can cause arm symptoms, leg symptoms, difficulty walking, weakness throughout the body, spastic robot-like walking, and breathing issues.

This is a neck problem that needs to be addressed ASAP!

Let’s take a look at some of the research on this problem, what your therapist should check, and when it’s time for the patient to be sent back to a physician for imaging to determine if the patient is a candidate for surgery…it is that important.

Some quick stories (or not so quick).

I’ve had two patients with cervical myelopathy. One patient had symptoms of this, but also had arm problems from a previous injury. Because of this, the CSM (cervical spine myelopathy) was delayed in diagnosis until the patient demonstrated abnormal gait…10 months later!

The second case was picked up in the clinic immediately on the first day. I performed this cluster, to be learned later, on the patient and he was very positive. We had a conversation about the need for imaging and a consult with a neurosurgeon. The patient essentially said…thanks but no thanks.

Unfortunately this patient lost use of his hands and developed a walking pattern that was very abnormal before he decided that surgery was the right choice.

Here’s a quick Video describing CSM.

“May involve lower extremities first, weakness of the legs, and spasticity”

Spasticity is an issue that could be seen in walking for some people, but is testing using movements under speed like in this Video

What we will see is that the body reflexively slows down or stops the movement from happening rapidly.

“lower motor neuron findings in the upper extremities such as loss of strength, atrophy, and difficulty in fine finger movements, may present”

This means that we may see generalized weakness, loss of muscle mass (smaller muscles) and difficulty with picking up pennies and buttoning buttons.

“neck stiffness, shoulder pain, paresthesias in one or both arms or hands, or radiculopathic signs”

Neck stiffness is self explanatory. The neck movement may not be fluid or it may be restricted due to pain. There may be symptoms such as pain, tingling or numbness radiating into the shoulder(s) regions, arm(s) region or down to the hand(s) region. We may also see changes in sensation or reflexes.

“An MRI is most useful because the tool expresses the amount of compression placed on the spinal cord, and demonstrates relatively high levels of sensitivity and specificity.”

There is little reason for a PT to recommend an MRI, unless there are specific conditions found during the evaluation. The type of presentation notes above is one reason for a PT to recommend an MRI to the referring physician or the patient’s primary care physician.

X-rays do not do a good job of demonstrating any soft tissue (muscle/spinal cord/disc/ligaments/tendons) abnormalities.

Mind you, this presentation is not common and for the most part, an early MRI is not indicated for neck or back pain.

“The tests, when used alone, are not overtly diagnostic and may lead to a number of false negatives and in rare occasions, false positives”

It is recommended that, when CSM is suspected, the physical therapist use the cluster (groups) of testing in order to strengthen the likelihood of this suspicion. One test used alone is not enough to consider other testing.

“in reality, the diagnosis of CSM involves MRI findings and clinical findings, with equal weighting of both results”

Because the clinical exam is so important for this diagnosis and subsequent imaging, it is important that the PT and physician be familiar with the testing described.

“Of the 10 variables included in the regression modeling, the tests of Babinski and Hoffman’s signs, the Inverted Supinator sign, gait Abnormality, and age > 45 years were retained.”

I’ll be honest. In my first 10 years, I never tested for the inverted supinate sign or Hoffman’s sign until I read this paper. This is a testimony to continuing one’s education beyond taking courses. I don’t recall (those that know me know that I have a pretty good memory) ever learning this cluster through any of the coursework that I took since 2007.

After reading this article, I practiced these tests on a bunch of healthy individuals, those with neck pain in which I didn’t suspect a spinal cord issue, so that I could get better st the test and understand the normal response. This way, I learned the test mechanics and felt confident performing the test on anyone. It enabled me to understand the difference between the “healthy” patients on which I tested this specific cluster and the few in which had a positive test.

Rant: I hear it from so many students and new grads that they feel like they haven’t learned how to perform the tests or what to see as a result of the test because they only get to test healthy individuals. Having gone through the mechanics of this cluster for years, I hope that students understand that they must become confident at performing the mechanics of the test (kinesthetic learning) and know how a healthy response looks. One may go his/her entire career without ever seeing this presentation, but that doesn’t mean that one can’t perform the test and understand a normal result. I bring this up because I hear the same type of arguments regarding vestibular testing and ocular testing.

Every patient that has a history of stroke gets a vestibular-ocular exam because there may be lingering positive testing after the neurological event. This again strengthens my ability to perform the test and increases my likelihood that I will see positive testing…so I know what it looks like for future patient evaluations that may come in off of the street through direct access.

“A finding that included three of five positive tests yielded a positive likelihood ratio of 30.9 and a post test probability of 94%”

Even if you’re not a statistician, this is important information.

A positive likelihood ratio greater than 10 is an indication that your testing is giving a result that increases the chances of that being the diagnosis.

A post-test probability of 94% indicates that there is less than a 10% chance that the diagnosis or classification is incorrect after testing.

This is a much better percentage than we have of most orthopedic issues.

“”this study found that selected combinations of clinical findings that consisted of (1) gait deviation; (2) + Hoffman’s sign; (3) inverted supinator sign; (4) + Babinski test and (5) age > 45 years were affective in ruling out and ruling in cervical spine myelopathy.”

If you are a student and plan on treating patients…you must know these tests.

If you are a therapist treating these patients…you must know, be confident administering and understand the repercussions of a positive test.

If you are a patient…know that not all therapists have the same training and some may not even know these tests exist. I hope this makes you take a more thoughtful approach in choosing your next PT.

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