Harvard Women's Health Watch

Physical therapy and back surgery equally effective, study shows

Spinal stenosis—narrowing of the spinal canal that increases pressure on spinal nerves—is a common source of lower back pain and weakness. Although many people assume that surgery to remove pressure on the nerves is the most effective way to bring relief, there is little evidence to support that assumption. A study reported in the April 7, 2015, issue of Annals of Internal Medicine indicates that physical therapy may be just as effective as back surgery in providing pain relief and enabling people to get around better.

For the study, 169 men and women with disabling spinal stenosis were randomly assigned to two groups—87 to have surgery and 82 to have intensive physical therapy. Two years later, both groups had similar results on physical function tests. However, 33 of the patients who underwent surgery had complications, usually requiring more surgery.

If you're considering surgery for spinal stenosis, you may want to try a few months of physical therapy first. And be sure to talk to your doctor about the potential risks and benefits of surgery.

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