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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. PATIENTS AND METHODS
  5. RESULTS
  6. DISCUSSION
  7. AUTHOR CONTRIBUTIONS
  8. REFERENCES

Objective

To describe exercise prescription in routine clinical practice for individuals with chronic back or neck pain because, although current practice guidelines promote exercise for chronic back and neck pain, little is known about exercise prescription in routine care.

Methods

We conducted a computer-assisted telephone survey of a representative sample of individuals (n = 684) with chronic back or neck pain who saw a physician, chiropractor, and/or physical therapist (PT) in the past 12 months. Individuals were asked about whether they were prescribed exercise, the amount of supervision received, and the type, duration, and frequency of the prescribed exercise. Descriptive and multivariable regression analyses were conducted.

Results

Of the 684 subjects, 48% were prescribed exercise. Of those prescribed exercise, 46% received the prescription from a PT, 29% from a physician, 21% from a chiropractor, and 4% from other. In multivariable analyses, seeing a PT or a chiropractor were the strongest predictors of exercise prescription. The likelihood of exercise prescription was increased in women, those with higher education, and those receiving worker's compensation. PTs were more likely to provide supervision and prescribe strengthening exercises compared with physicians and chiropractors, and were more likely to prescribe stretching exercises compared with physicians.

Conclusion

Our findings suggest that exercise is being underutilized as a treatment for chronic back and neck pain and, to some extent, that the amount of supervision and types of exercises prescribed do not follow current practice guidelines. Exercise prescription provided by PTs appears to be most in line with current guidelines.


INTRODUCTION

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. PATIENTS AND METHODS
  5. RESULTS
  6. DISCUSSION
  7. AUTHOR CONTRIBUTIONS
  8. REFERENCES

Exercise is a common treatment for individuals with chronic low back or neck pain and is used to improve physical function and decrease symptoms (e.g., pain, stiffness). Exercise has also been used to minimize disability by decreasing individuals' fears about pain during movement and by reshaping their attitudes and beliefs about their pain. The latter goal is common in cognitive behavioral and functional restoration programs, both of which typically use a quota-based, nonpain-contingent approach to exercise (1).

In the past decade, a number of randomized trials, systematic reviews, and clinical practice guidelines have supported the use of exercise for the treatment of chronic low back pain (2–14) and chronic neck pain (15–19). Although there is still much to learn about the types and intensity of exercises that are most effective, recent meta-analyses by Hayden and colleagues suggest that individually tailored, supervised exercise programs that include stretching and strengthening are associated with the best outcomes for individuals with chronic low back pain (5, 6). Hayden et al also found that exercise in combination with other conservative treatments and high-dose exercise, defined as an exercise intervention with a total time of 20 hours or more, improved pain and function more than exercise alone or low-dose exercise (6).

The findings for chronic neck pain are similar, although somewhat less definitive, with data suggesting that certain types of exercise are most effective and that supervised exercise is more effective than nonsupervised exercise. According to evidence statements on the treatment of chronic neck pain published by the Bone and Joint Decade 2000–2010 Task Force on Neck Pain (19), supervised and home exercise plus advice is marginally more effective than advice alone for chronic whiplash-associated disorders; a neck exercise program alone or in combination with spinal manipulation is more effective than spinal manipulation alone, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, or usual care for chronic, nonspecific neck pain; and both endurance (repetitive submaximal resistance exercises) and strengthening exercises (repetitive maximal resistance exercises) are effective treatments for chronic, nonspecific neck pain. Data also suggest that aerobic exercise and stretching alone are less effective than endurance and strengthening exercises (20, 21), and that stretching exercises for the neck are as effective as manual therapy (22). Evidence on the additive effect of other conservative treatments in combination with exercise for the treatment of chronic neck pain is less clear. There are some data to suggest that multimodal approaches that include exercise may be more effective than single-treatment approaches (23, 24).

Although the past decade has led to gains in our understanding of the efficacy of exercise for chronic low back and neck pain, less is known about exercise prescription in routine clinical practice. Who is prescribing it? Who is getting it? What is being prescribed? Such information would be useful in assessing the translation of research findings to clinical practice and in identifying areas to target for increased promotion of exercise as an effective treatment.

We analyzed data from a population-based survey of health care provider and treatment use by individuals with chronic low back or neck pain in order to gain a better understanding of the use of exercise in the treatment of these conditions. Our specific objectives were 1) to determine the extent to which exercise is prescribed by physicians, physical therapists (PTs), and chiropractors for the treatment of chronic low back and neck pain; 2) to identify demographic, insurance, work, and health-related characteristics associated with exercise prescription; 3) to describe the amount of supervision provided and types of exercises prescribed for each provider type; and 4) to determine the extent to which other conservative treatments are used in combination with exercise.

PATIENTS AND METHODS

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. PATIENTS AND METHODS
  5. RESULTS
  6. DISCUSSION
  7. AUTHOR CONTRIBUTIONS
  8. REFERENCES

Data for this study come from a larger study on back and neck pain prevalence and health care use in North Carolina (25). A cross-sectional, computer-assisted telephone survey of a representative sample of North Carolina residents was conducted in the parent study to identify a sample of adults with chronic low back or neck pain. These individuals were then surveyed on their health and health care use, including exercise prescription.

Sample selection

The sampling strategy for the parent study and this study is outlined in Figure 1. A stratified probability sample (stratified by region and race) of North Carolina telephone numbers was obtained from a sampling vendor (26). A total of 5,357 households were contacted, and 9,924 adults age ≥21 years were rostered. The household response rate was 66%, computed as the sum of households interviewed divided by the sum of eligible households plus an estimate of the proportion of households with unknown eligibility (27). Of the 9,924 rostered adults, 4,451 adults from 3,276 households had a history of back and/or neck pain, defined as any kind of back or neck problem in the past few years. One adult from each of these households was randomly selected to be interviewed in more detail (n = 3,276), and 2,723 adults were interviewed for an individual response rate of 86%. Relative to responders, nonresponders were similar in age and race, but were more likely to be male (P < 0.001 by chi-square test).

thumbnail image

Figure 1. Sample selection strategy from 2006. NC = North Carolina; PT = physical therapist; MD = physician; DC = chiropractor; LBP = low back pain.

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Of the adults interviewed, 873 had chronic low back or neck pain. Low back pain was defined as pain at the level of the waist or below, with or without buttock and/or leg pain. Neck pain was defined as pain in the neck area with or without pain in the shoulders or arms. Chronic pain was defined as pain and activity limitations for the past 3 months, or >24 episodes of activity-limiting pain in the past year. Individuals were first asked about back pain and then, if they reported chronic pain, completed the back pain module of the survey. These individuals may have had a history of neck pain. This approach was taken because one objective of the parent study was to emulate methods used by our group in an earlier study on back pain prevalence (28).

The sample for this analysis consisted of individuals with chronic back or neck pain who completed the exercise section of the survey and who had seen 1 or more of the following providers in the past year: physician, chiropractor, or PT (n = 684, with 574 chronic back and 110 chronic neck pain).

Survey instrument

The survey instrument for this study was an expansion of a computer-assisted survey instrument fielded in 1992 (28). The 1992 survey addressed the prevalence of acute and chronic low back pain and health care use in North Carolina. A Spanish version of the instrument was created because the Latino population of North Carolina had grown significantly since 1992. Prior to data collection, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Survey Research Unit piloted the survey instrument on a random sample of North Carolina residents (n = 84). Subjects stated that the numerous questions relating each of the treatments to the provider who administered the treatment were cumbersome; therefore, many of these questions were eliminated.

The back pain module included a series of questions on symptoms (e.g., pain intensity, presence of extremity pain/weakness), general health status (Medical Outcomes Study Short Form 12 [SF-12] Health Survey), functional status (Roland-Morris Disability questionnaire) (29), provider and treatment use in the past year, and medication use in the past 30 days. The module ended with more detailed questions on insurance, employment, and demographic characteristics. The neck pain module had a similar design, with the Neck Disability Index (30) as the condition-specific measure of functional status.

Exercise section of survey

Both the back and neck pain modules included a series of questions on exercise. Individuals were first asked whether they had received exercise or posture instruction from a doctor or therapist in the past 12 months. Those who said yes were then asked to identify the provider type (response categories: medical doctor, chiropractor, PT) and the amount of supervision (response categories: supervised, on your own, both). For data analysis, the supervision data were dichotomized as supervised (answers of supervised or both) or not supervised (answers of on your own). Respondents were then asked whether they received instruction in each of the following types of exercise: walking, stretching, strengthening, range of motion, and posture. For each type of exercise, respondents were queried about the duration (number of minutes spent on the exercise) and frequency (number of times per week) that they performed the exercises.

Analytic framework

We hypothesized that patients' demographic, insurance, work, and health-related characteristics, along with the types of providers seen in the past year, would be associated with exercise prescription. Variability in exercise prescription by demographic characteristics may represent underlying group differences in the attitudes/beliefs of the patients and/or providers regarding exercise prescription. Insurance and work-related characteristics may also influence whether a provider prescribes exercise. For example, individuals receiving worker's compensation for back pain likely have physically demanding jobs and may require specific exercises/conditioning before they return to work. Health-related characteristics of the individuals may also influence whether a provider prescribes exercise. There are data to suggest that individuals with certain health-related characteristics are more or less likely to benefit from exercise (31–34). Finally, provider type seen may also be associated with exercise prescription. Exercises, for example, are a treatment often provided by PTs (35).

The specific variables included in our analyses were chosen based on our analytic framework and availability. Demographic variables included age, sex, race, and education. Insurance and work-related variables included whether the subject had been employed in the past year and whether subjects had any one of the following: private insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, worker's compensation, disability insurance, or no insurance/compensation. The providers seen variable included whether the individual had seen a physician, PT, or chiropractor in the past year. Health-related characteristics included average pain intensity in the past 3 months (on a 0–10 scale), years with chronic pain, presence of extremity pain and weakness, fair/poor general health rating, SF-12 physical component summary (PCS) and mental component summary scores, Roland-Morris Disability scores, Neck Disability Index scores, narcotic medication use in the past 30 days, location of pain (i.e., neck or back), and whether the patient had received spinal surgery in the past year.

Statistical analysis

All analyses were conducted using sampling weights and the survey commands in Stata software, version 9.2 (Stata Corporation, College Station, TX). Missing data ranged from 0–9%. With the exception of SF-12 scores, these missing values were not imputed, resulting in casewise exclusion from statistical analyses. For individuals with <6 missing items on the SF-12 (n = 33), a regression-based, multipattern imputation using the available items was conducted (36).

Descriptive statistics were used to characterize individuals by whether they had received exercise prescription. Two sample t-tests and chi-square tests of proportions were conducted to determine differences in the characteristics of the 2 groups. Multivariable logistic regression analyses were then conducted to determine the demographic, insurance, work-related, health-related, and provider use characteristics associated with exercise prescription. Because type of provider seen appeared to be a strong predictor of exercise prescription, we estimated 2 models, one that included only demographic, insurance, work, and health characteristics; and one that included these variables and the provider use variables. For the multivariable analyses, the following health-related variables were not included because they were not applicable to all individuals: pain duration, Roland-Morris Disability scores, and Neck Disability Index scores. The latter 2 variables were also highly correlated with the SF-12 PCS scores.

For individuals who were prescribed exercise, descriptive statistics on the amount of supervision, types of exercise, and duration and frequency of exercise were generated by provider type. For each individual, we also calculated a measure of total exercise time per week by summing the exercise intensity (duration × frequency) for each prescribed exercise. Tests of differences in means and proportions of the 3 groups were conducted using logistic regression analyses, with the exercise characteristic as the dependent variable and the provider types as the independent variables. For individuals who were prescribed exercise, we also generated descriptive statistics on other types of conservative treatments used in the past year.

RESULTS

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. PATIENTS AND METHODS
  5. RESULTS
  6. DISCUSSION
  7. AUTHOR CONTRIBUTIONS
  8. REFERENCES

Exercise was prescribed to 48% of subjects who had seen a physician, PT, and/or chiropractor in the past year. Of those who were prescribed exercise, 46.0% received the prescription from a PT, 28.6% from a physician, 20.9% from a chiropractor, and 4.6% from other (more than one provider or not specified).

Descriptive data on exercise prescription by provider type, conditional on seeing the provider, are presented in Table 1. Of those who saw a PT, 63.8% were prescribed exercise, of those who saw a chiropractor, 33.1% were prescribed exercise, and of those who saw a physician, 14.4% were prescribed exercise. When we stratified our analyses by location (i.e., back or neck), the percentages were similar and not statistically different.

Table 1. Exercise prescription by provider type*
Provider typeSeen in past yearPrescribed exercise
  • *

    Values are the percentage (95% confidence interval).

  • Conditional on seeing provider.

Physician94.4 (92.0–96.1)14.4 (11.6–17.7)
Physical therapist34.2 (30.4–38.3)63.8 (56.7–70.3)
Chiropractor30.0 (26.1–34.1)33.1 (26.0–41.2)
Physician, physical therapist, and/or chiropractor10047.5 (43.3–51.8)

Although most subjects in the sample saw a physician, only 14.4% were prescribed exercise. Some individuals who saw a physician and were not prescribed exercise saw a PT who did. Of those subjects who saw a physician and did not receive exercise instruction, 26.3% saw a PT who did prescribe exercise and 9.7% saw a chiropractor who did prescribe exercise.

The demographic, insurance, work-related, and health-related characteristics of the sample by exercise prescription are presented in Table 2. In bivariate comparisons, individuals who were female, more educated, on worker's compensation, employed in the past year, had seen a PT, or had seen a chiropractor were more likely to receive exercise prescription. The number of patient visits also increased the likelihood of exercise prescription by chiropractors. Individuals who were on Medicare, who reported poorer general health, or who reported greater physical disability were less likely to be prescribed exercise. Variables that approached significance and were associated with an increased likelihood of exercise prescription were younger age, private insurance, not receiving narcotics, and more physical therapy visits.

Table 2. Demographic and clinical characteristics by exercise prescription (n = 684)*
CharacteristicsExercise prescriptionP
No (n = 361)Yes (n = 323)
  • *

    Values are the percentage unless otherwise indicated. SF-12 = Short Form 12; PCS = physical component summary; MCS = mental component summary.

  • Categories not mutually exclusive.

  • Excludes subjects who reported >24 episodes of pain in the past year (n = 619).

  • §

    Back pain only (n = 574).

  • Neck pain only (n = 110).

  • #

    Conditional on seeing provider.

Demographic
 Mean age, years53.451.60.15
 Female sex57.766.50.04
 Race   
  Non-Hispanic white73.573.3 
  Non-Hispanic African American16.916.40.31
  Non-Hispanic other6.54.2 
  Hispanic3.26.1 
 Education
  Less than high school20.412.7 
  High school33.424.2< 0.001
  More than high school46.263.2 
Insurance and work-related Insurance
  Private57.265.80.05
  Medicare and age ≥62 years21.817.70.23
  Medicaid12.916.60.21
  Worker's compensation4.911.50.003
  Disability or Medicare and age <62 years27.721.40.10
  None14.311.80.42
 Employed in past year18.226.7< 0.001
Health-related
 Pain location   
  Back84.881.50.32
  Neck15.318.5 
 Mean duration of problem, years9.69.00.57
 Fair or poor general health44.834.00.01
 Mean SF-12 PCS score30.232.70.005
 Mean SF-12 MCS score48.047.90.95
 Mean Roland-Morris score§16.214.60.008
 Mean Neck Disability Index score33.132.00.72
 Mean pain rating past 3 months (range 0–10)6.86.60.26
 Have extremity pain69.972.90.45
 Have extremity weakness57.456.30.81
 Receiving narcotics for back or neck pain60.252.30.07
 Had spinal surgery in past year7.59.00.52
Providers seen in past year
 Physician94.594.20.86
  Mean physician visits#9.29.70.73
 Physical therapist12.558.2< 0.001
  Mean physical therapist visits#12.717.90.11
 Chiropractor18.243.0< 0.001
  Mean chiropractor visits#16.227.40.02

The results of the multivariable logistic regression analyses are presented in Table 3. In model 1, being female, more educated, receiving worker's compensation, receiving Medicaid, or being employed in the past year increased the likelihood of receiving exercise prescription. Location of pain (back or neck) was not related to exercise prescription. When provider use variables were added (model 2), being female, more educated, or receiving worker's compensation continued to increase the likelihood of exercise prescription. The type of provider seen in the past year was the strongest predictor of exercise prescription. None of the health-related variables were associated with exercise prescription.

Table 3. Multivariable logistic regression analysis of patient-level characteristics associated with exercise prescription*
CharacteristicModel 1Model 2
OR (95% CI)POR (95% CI)P
  • *

    OR = odds ratio; 95% CI = 95% confidence interval; SF-12 = Short Form 12; PCS = physical component summary; MCS = mental component summary.

Demographic
 Age0.99 (0.97–1.01)0.4770.99 (0.96–1.01)0.240
 Female1.80 (1.20–2.71)0.0052.04 (1.26–3.28)0.004
 White1.26 (0.82–1.94)0.2971.38 (0.82–2.33)0.226
 More than high school education1.83 (1.24–2.69)0.0021.85 (1.19–2.88)0.007
Insurance and work-related
 Private insurance1.54 (0.83–2.87)0.1741.50 (0.65–3.46)0.341
 Medicare1.37 (0.67–2.81)0.3941.66 (0.73–3.81)0.228
 Medicaid2.33 (1.21–4.48)0.0111.84 (0.82–4.13)0.139
 Worker's compensation2.55 (1.24–5.25)0.0112.39 (1.23–4.67)0.011
 Disability insurance1.16 (0.66–2.03)0.6071.58 (0.84–2.99)0.159
 No insurance1.21 (0.53–2.79)0.6541.71 (0.61–4.83)0.310
 Employed in the past year1.89 (1.18–3.03)0.0081.63 (0.96–2.76)0.068
Health-related
 SF-12 PCS score1.02 (1.00–1.05)0.0711.01 (0.99–1.04)0.366
 SF-12 MCS score1.00 (0.98–1.02)0.7531.00 (0.98–1.02)0.703
 Extremity pain1.35 (0.87–2.10)0.1830.99 (0.61–1.63)0.983
 Extremity weakness1.27 (0.83–1.94)0.2711.25 (0.77–2.03)0.364
 Pain intensity1.00 (0.91–1.11)0.9511.02 (0.91–1.13)0.778
 Prescribed narcotics0.81 (0.54–1.20)0.2940.70 (0.44–1.13)0.141
 Surgery in past year1.12 (0.57–2.20)0.7510.67 (0.29–1.55)0.350
 Back pain1.09 (0.65–1.82)0.7531.39 (0.73–2.62)0.313
Providers seen    
 Physician  2.01 (0.76–5.31)0.161
 Physical therapist  11.96 (7.15–20.01)< 0.001
 Chiropractor  4.40 (2.55–7.57)< 0.001

There were some differences in the amount of supervision and types of exercises prescribed by the different providers (Table 4). PTs were more likely to provide supervision than physicians and chiropractors. PTs were also more likely than physicians to prescribe stretching. Findings that approached significance included PTs being more likely to prescribe strengthening exercises and less likely to prescribe walking. There were few differences among providers in regard to duration of exercise, with the exception of PTs prescribing walking for a shorter and stretching for a longer duration. There were no differences in exercise frequency (generally 5 times per week). The total exercise time per week also did not vary by provider and was ∼3.5 hours per week.

Table 4. Exercise characteristics by providers who prescribed exercise (n = 684)*
Exercise characteristicPTMDDCSignificant differences
  • *

    PT = physical therapist; MD = physician; DC = chiropractor; NS = not significant.

  • P < 0.10.

Provided supervision, %65.529.328.6PT > MD, DC (P < 0.001)
Type of exercise, %
 Walking52.270.150.8PT < MD (P = 0.09)
 Stretching92.275.687.3PT > MD (P = 0.003)
 Strengthening70.156.455.8PT > MD (P = 0.05)
    PT > DC (P = 0.08)
 Range of motion81.271.776.4NS
 Posture43.337.639.5NS
Mean duration, minutes/session
 Walking20.627.428.1PT < MD (P = 0.02)
    PT < DC (P = 0.08)
 Stretching15.810.311.6PT > MD (P = 0.003)
    PT > DC (P = 0.04)
 Strengthening17.816.813.9NS
 Range of motion13.510.710.9NS
 Posture15.114.410.7NS
Mean frequency, times/week
 Walking5.14.74.8NS
 Stretching5.65.75.8NS
 Strengthening4.75.44.7NS
 Range of motion4.85.55.9NS
 Posture5.44.64.2NS
Mean total minutes of exercise/week266228210NS

Of those prescribed exercise, 86% used ≥1 additional conservative physical treatments, with a mean of 3 treatments per patient (Table 5). Heat, cold, and electrical stimulation were the most common additional treatments for subjects with back pain, whereas heat, cold, and manipulation were most common for subjects with neck pain. Medication use was also quite high in those prescribed exercise.

Table 5. Use of other physical treatments and medications by those prescribed exercise (n = 684)*
 BackNeck
  • *

    Values are the percentage (95% confidence interval). TENS = transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation; OTC = over-the-counter; NSAIDs = nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs; TCA = tricyclic antidepressant.

Physical treatment
 Heat55.5 (48.9–62.1)73.2 (59.4–86.9)
 Cold53.0 (46.6–59.5)52.5 (36.1–68.9)
 Electrical stimulation34.9 (28.7–41.2)40.1 (23.8–56.3)
 Manipulation32.1 (25.8–38.4)48.9 (34.1–63.8)
 Massage26.7 (20.7–32.6)37.2 (21.4–53.0)
 TENS25.1 (19.3–31.0)34.6 (18.7–50.5)
 Ultrasound24.1 (18.4–29.8)39.2 (23.2–55.3)
 Acupuncture10.6 (6.3–14.9)2.3 (0.0–5.5)
 Traction9.0 (5.0–13.0)22.6 (8.2–36.9)
Medications
 OTC pain medications96.9 (94.7–99.1)95.7 (88.8–102.5)
 Narcotics55.5 (48.8–62.2)37.0 (21.2–52.8)
 Prescription NSAIDs43.9 (37.3–50.6)32.9 (18.3–47.4)
 Muscle relaxants31.5 (25.2–37.7)31.3 (16.6–46.0)
 Antidepressants31.5 (25.2–37.8)27.5 (13.4–41.5)
 TCA/anticonvulsant21.3 (15.7–26.8)6.0 (0.00–12.8)

DISCUSSION

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. PATIENTS AND METHODS
  5. RESULTS
  6. DISCUSSION
  7. AUTHOR CONTRIBUTIONS
  8. REFERENCES

Less than 50% of the subjects in our sample were prescribed exercise, one of the few moderately effective therapies for the highly disabling illness of chronic back and neck pain. Type of provider seen played a major role in whether individuals received exercise prescription, and was more influential than any of the other patient-related factors. These findings agree with other studies on the care of back pain that have found that “who you see is what you get” (37, 38).

As might be expected, PTs were the most likely to prescribe exercise; however, approximately one-third of individuals who saw a PT did not receive exercise prescription. Chiropractors were the next most likely to prescribe exercise and were more likely to do so if they saw the patient more often. Although physicians were the least likely to prescribe exercise, some patients who saw a physician were prescribed exercise by a PT or chiropractor. Patients who saw a PT were likely referred by a physician. Patients who saw a chiropractor may have had a physician referral for chiropractic care, but this is not common (39). Still, less than half of the subjects who saw a physician were prescribed exercise by any provider. Considering current evidence of the efficacy of exercise, these findings demonstrate that exercise is being underutilized as a treatment for chronic back and neck pain.

In bivariate analyses, individuals with poorer measures of health and function were less likely to receive exercise prescription. However, in multivariate analyses, this relationship was not maintained. Contrary to what we hypothesized, none of the health-related characteristics predicted whether an individual was prescribed exercise. Although there are some data to suggest that individuals with different degrees of impairment respond more or less favorably to exercise (33, 34, 40–44), providers' decisions to prescribe exercise did not appear to be influenced by the degree of impairment. Our findings disagree with the literature on factors associated with physician advice to exercise as a preventive intervention. Several studies have found that, in the general population, individuals with poorer health status were more likely to receive physician advice to exercise (45–47).

We also found that women, people with a higher education level, and those receiving worker's compensation were more likely to be prescribed exercise, controlling for other demographic and health-related characteristics and provider type. Other studies have found a positive association between physician prescription of physical activity and female sex and education level (45, 48). Studies also suggest that women and more educated individuals are more likely to be active participants in their care, which in turn affects the way the provider interacts with the patient and ultimately leads to more commitment to treatment regimens (49, 50). Our findings regarding worker's compensation seem reasonable, because individuals receiving worker's compensation are frequently physical laborers who were injured on the job and are being treated with the goal of returning to work.

For those who were prescribed exercise, the type of provider seen determined the amount of supervision received and, to some extent, the types of exercises prescribed. PTs were much more likely to provide supervision and were more likely to prescribe stretching and strengthening exercises. Current systematic reviews and practice guidelines for the treatment of chronic low back pain and neck pain suggest that exercise supervision and the inclusion of strengthening exercises lead to better outcomes (5, 6, 19). For chronic low back pain, stretching exercises have also been included in recommendations (5, 6). In addition, there is evidence to support the combination of treatments and/or multimodal approaches to care (6, 23, 24). Most of the subjects in the study were using a combination of conservative treatments, with varying levels of evidence to support their use (3, 51).

There was a tendency toward physicians being more likely than PTs to prescribe walking and less likely to prescribe strengthening exercises. This finding may be related to time constraints on and/or the comfort level of the physician. Instructions on walking can be given fairly quickly, with little explanation, and with no need for demonstration or performance by the patient.

All types of providers appeared to provide therapeutic levels of exercise duration, with patients instructed to exercise for a total of ∼3.5 hours a week. Following these guidelines for 6 weeks would achieve the high-dosage rate of 20 hours that has been recommended for the treatment of chronic low back pain (6).

This study had some limitations, the most significant being that we relied on patient self-report regarding exercise prescription, type, frequency, and duration. Responses to the questions may have been subject to social desirability bias. In the debriefing of pilot respondents during instrument pretesting, understanding of the exercise questions was good. A few subjects were unclear on what was meant by range of motion exercises. Nonetheless, we are unable to verify the accuracy with which subjects categorized their exercises and recalled instructions on duration and frequency. More importantly, we have no data on the duration that they actually exercised. There may also have been issues with subject recall (i.e., not remembering that they were prescribed exercise). Although not specific to the exercise questions, we did conduct a pilot study to assess how well individuals recalled their number of provider visits in the past year. When compared with chart abstraction, the correlation between the 2 measures of visit number was 0.83.

We believe that our population-based study provides valuable information that is currently lacking in the literature regarding exercise prescription in everyday practice. Our findings suggest that exercise is being underutilized as a treatment for chronic back and neck pain and, to some extent, that the amount of supervision and types of exercises prescribed do not follow current practice guidelines. Although exercise prescription provided by PTs appears to be the most in line with current guidelines, there is much room for improvement by all types of providers who prescribe exercise for patients with chronic back and neck pain.

Future research should utilize other research designs (e.g., cohort) and sources of data (e.g., provider report, claims data) to gather information regarding exercise prescription. It should also further explore provider-level characteristics and additional patient-level characteristics associated with exercise prescription, as well as barriers to prescription of and adherence to exercise treatments. Barriers to exercise prescription may include practitioner knowledge, organizational aspects of the practice, and relatively poor reimbursement for exercise instruction compared with other modes of back and neck treatment. Patient-provider collaborative models of care, provider-provider collaborative models of care, and provider training models should also be explored to determine models that are most effective in facilitating the initiation of and compliance with an exercise program.

AUTHOR CONTRIBUTIONS

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. PATIENTS AND METHODS
  5. RESULTS
  6. DISCUSSION
  7. AUTHOR CONTRIBUTIONS
  8. REFERENCES

Dr. Freburger had full access to all of the data in the study and takes responsibility for the integrity of the data and the accuracy of the data analysis.

Study design. Freburger, Carey, Jackman.

Acquisition of data. Carey, Jackman.

Analysis and interpretation of data. Freburger, Carey, Holmes, Wallace, Castel, Darter, Jackman.

Manuscript preparation. Freburger, Carey, Holmes, Wallace, Castel.

Statistical analysis. Freburger, Holmes.

REFERENCES

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. PATIENTS AND METHODS
  5. RESULTS
  6. DISCUSSION
  7. AUTHOR CONTRIBUTIONS
  8. REFERENCES
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