While more than 1.5 million orthopedic surgeries are performed in the U.S. each year, current research is showing that surgery might not be needed as often as previously thought. According to a recent review an estimated 10% to 20% of surgeries might not be necessary and in some specialties - such orthopedics - that number could be higher. One of the most common reasons for unnecessary surgery is that conservative options simply are not tried first.
For musculoskeletal problems like joint pain, sprains, and strains, seeing a physical therapist before a surgeon can help keep patients out of the operating room and get them back to their daily lives sooner. Studies have shown that physical therapy is just as good - if not better - than surgery for a multitude of conditions, and it carries far less risk. We've compiled some research here as to the benefits of seeking physical therapy first for common orthopedic problems.
by Sally Fansler, PT
Rotator Cuff Tears
The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that surround the shoulder joint and provide strength and stability. When one of the rotator cuff muscles is frayed or damaged, it is considered a partial tear, whereas a complete tear is more severe and can actually pull the tendon from the attachment on the bone. Tears happen over time from normal wear and tear, or they can happen traumatically with a fall or strain.
Small- to medium-sized tears typically respond quite well to physical therapy. A 2016 review of medical literature noted that conservative PT treatment for rotator cuff tears is effective in 73-80% of patients. While this efficacy rate depends on the age and medical history of the patient, the location of the tear, and the severity of the tear, more often than not surgery can be avoided (though in the case of a massive rotator cuff tear or a retracted tendon, the positive response to physical therapy may be reduced).
One of the most common knee injuries, meniscal tears are typically caused by an activity that twists the knee, and often occur when underlying osteoarthritis is present. An estimated 460,000 patients in the United States get surgery each year to fix tears in this C-shaped piece of cartilage, which acts like a cushion for the knee joint.
Researchers are currently studying the effectiveness of surgery versus physical therapy in those patients with meniscal tears and knee arthritis. In a study of 351 patients who were 45 years and older with meniscal tears and osteoarthritis, half received physical therapy while the other half underwent surgery. The research did not find any significant differences after 6 months in those who received physical therapy alone and those who had surgery. Additionally, a 2017 literature review found that arthroscopic surgery for degenerative knee disease (including arthritis and meniscal tears) did not give lasting pain relief or improved function. Often, physical therapy is the optimal place to start to address this common knee injury.
Low Back Pain
One type of back pain, called spinal stenosis, is a degenerative disease that causes narrowing of the space in the spinal canal. This narrowing creates pressure on spinal nerves and can become increasingly painful. Spinal stenosis is sometimes treated with surgery, but physical therapy often works just as well and comes with fewer unwanted complications than surgery, according to a study published in Annals of Internal Medicine in 2015.
Degenerative disk disease is also a common cause of back pain and has been studied extensively. Disk patients are sometimes treated with a surgical spinal fusion. However, a 2013 study found no major difference in outcomes between patients who had surgery for degenerative disk disease and those who chose physical therapy instead.
Physical therapy can't fix every problem, and for some patients, surgery really is the best choice. However, the research continues to demonstrate that surgery is not a cure-all, and in fact is sometimes a very expensive and risky placebo. In many cases, physical therapy is the place to start - and for some, it's the only treatment necessary.
Peter Edwards, Allan Wang. "Exercise Rehabilitation in the Non-Operative Management of Rotator Cuff Tears: A Review of the Literature". Pubmed Central (PMC), 2021.
"Surgery Versus Physical Therapy For A Meniscal Tear And Osteoarthritis". Vol 369, no. 7, 2013, pp. 683-683. Massachusetts Medical Society, doi:10.1056/nejmx130035.
Siemieniuk, Reed A C et al. "Arthroscopic Surgery For Degenerative Knee Arthritis And Meniscal Tears: A Clinical Practice Guideline". BMJ, 2017, p. j1982. BMJ, doi:10.1136/bmj.j1982.
Kuhn, John E. et al. "Effectiveness Of Physical Therapy In Treating Atraumatic Full-Thickness Rotator Cuff Tears: A Multicenter Prospective Cohort Study". Journal Of Shoulder And Elbow Surgery, vol 22, no. 10, 2013, pp. 1371-1379. Elsevier BV, doi:10.1016/j.jse.2013.01.026.
Barrer, Steven J. "Surgery Versus Nonsurgical Treatment Of Lumbar Spinal Stenosis". Annals Of Internal Medicine, vol 163, no. 5, 2015, p. 396. American College Of Physicians, doi:10.7326/l15-5129.