Relief from Back Pain

Back pain like this can be treated by a physical therapist, thanks to a Virginia law called Direct Access.

You’ve already lived with the pain in your back, neck or other joints for months. Now that you’ve decided to seek treatment, you’re ready to start making progress. You’ve got a marathon to run, a baby to take care of, a life to live.

The good news is: you can start seeing a physical therapist immediately. “If you call in this morning with back pain, I can probably see you this afternoon,” says Brian Beaulieu, executive regional director for Tidewater Physical Therapy Southside. “You get immediate relief.”

Thanks to a Virginia law called Direct Access, passed in 2007 but still not widely known, you can seek treatment directly from a physical therapist for two to three weeks (14 business days) without seeing a physician. The law gives people quicker access to an expert who knows the muscular skeletal system, Beaulieu says. Once you stop procrastinating about your pain, you can get relief without waiting for a physician referral.

“It’s rare that people come in here and say, ‘This just happened yesterday,’” he says. “Most people walk around in pain for as long as six months.”

This time of year, Beaulieu hears from runners preparing for the Shamrock marathon and half marathon March 22.

“A 45-year-old runner training for the Shamrock may develop back pain, calf pain, other leg pain—perhaps from not stretching properly,” Beaulieu says. “Whenever there’s a local marathon, you have people who are ramping up and we see them. Or, you have people who haven’t trained or they undertrained—and they wing it a little bit, do the race and we see them afterward.”

On your first visit, which will last about 90 minutes, you’ll talk about your pain with the physical therapist, Beaulieu says. If you have an obvious problem or symptoms that indicate a possible herniated disc, the therapist will refer you to a physician.

“Generally when someone has a trauma, we like them to go see a physician and get any imaging that needs to be done,” he says. “But if somebody has a chronic pain in their muscles, we can help.”

If your problem doesn’t warrant a visit to a physician right away, the physical therapist will still communicate with your doctor of record that you’re being treated. Then, the therapist will begin working with you that day, and you can start getting better.

“We’ll initiate treatment right there, the same day,” he says. “If you have back pain and you know it’s muscular because it happened in the past, usually it gets better with physical therapy.”

After you’ve been in treatment more than 14 business days, your physical therapist will talk to your physician and determine whether to continue physical therapy or to refer to the physician for imaging, Beaulieu says.

Part of the treatment is education on how you can improve your training and stretching and change other habits to feel better and prevent injuries, Beaulieu says.

“One of the greatest things about physical therapists is the education piece,” Beaulieu says. “We work with someone for two weeks under Direct Access. We can see them three times a week for two weeks. That’s three hours a week of one-on-one time when they’re learning from a professional. We spend a lot of time educating people so they can keep pain at bay.”

People don’t often realize that their pain is linked to their habits.

“A mom carries her infant on her left hip every day while running around the house and has low back pain,” he says. “One of the causes may be shifting her hips from side to side. Some of it is just making people aware. Don’t stand at the counter or load the dishwasher with the child on your hip.”

Thanks to texting and computer use, young adults and teens are coming in with neck pain and headaches, he says. “They round their shoulders forward with the phone toward their waist and work their thumbs,” he says. “People wind up with headaches.”

After your first visit, you’ll likely return once or twice more that week. Your physical therapist will want to know if you actually modified your habits as suggested and if you saw improvement.

The goal throughout: get you out of pain and back into the activities you love.

Read more about reducing back pain.

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