The New Way to Manage Neck Pain (That Decreases Opioid Prescriptions and Lowers Cost)

In Headache, Neck Pain by Seth Peterson, Physical Therapist Oro Valley

For most of us, it’s not news that our healthcare system doesn’t spend money in the right places.  We spend far more per capita on healthcare than any other country in the world,1and our outcomes–when it comes to the vast majority of orthopedic issues– aren’t any better.   

The News

For those of you with neck pain, don’t hang your head.  Luckily for all of us, there are researchers who study these sorts of things.  A study recently published in BMC Health Services looked at 308 patients with neck pain over the course of 1 year.2  The researchers wanted to find out if going to a physical therapist earlier when you have neck pain leads to better outcomes. The results were pretty astounding.  The main findings of the study were as follows:

1.) Going to PT later cost $2,172 more in total costs than going to PT earlier.

2.) Of all of the patients (who went to a physician first), almost 63% got an opioid prescription for their neck pain.  Prescribing opioids this early in the process is not recommended, as about 1 in 4 people prescribed opioids has trouble getting off of them.

3.) The group that went to PT late had almost 3 times greater risk of getting an opiod prescription.

4.) The group that went to PT later had a higher rate of spinal injections and imaging.

What Does This Mean?

This is one in a number of studies now to show that initiating physical therapy early in the course of someone’s pain leads to lower costs and better healthcare outcomes.  Check out some of our previous blog posts to see other examples. 

Most states (including Arizona) now have unrestricted access to physical therapy.  This means that you, as a patient, have the ability to decide whether you want to go to physical therapy first –and no referral is needed to do so.  However, if you want to use your insurance, you may be surprised to find that your insurance company has put up barriers to use.  These can include requirements for a referral or pre-authorization.  In reality, the insurance company is hoping that you either make a mistake or get so discouraged that you don’t use them at all.

The great news is – as a patient, you have the ability to make the best decision for your own health. This is yet another study that supports early access to physical therapy being hugely impactful in terms of cost and healthcare use.  If you’d like to discuss coming to physical therapy for neck pain that is interfering with your life, shoot us a message or give us a call.  


  1. How does health spending in the U.S. compare to other countries? Peterson-Kaiser Health System Tracker Accessed June 29, 2019.
  2. 2.    Horn ME, Fritz JM. Timing of physical therapy consultation on 1-year healthcare utilization and costs in patients seeking care for neck pain: a retrospective cohort. BMC Health Services Research. 2018;18(1):887. doi:10.1186/s12913-018-3699-0.