Physical Therapy Vs Surgery: Which Should You Choose?

Physical Therapist Consulting with Patient

Jane wasn’t a highly competitive athlete in her youth but physical activity and fitness were priorities throughout her entire life. She loved being able to strap on her tennis shoes and go for a run in the spring, or pull out her bike and head out for a ride in the summer. In the wintertime, she made it a point to go skiing. She loved being physically active and pushing her body to the limits. It brought her life, she felt and thought.

The older she got, however, the more difficult her favorite activities became, causing more pain and soreness than enjoyment. At her yearly check-up, she mentioned the pain to her doctor, who put her through extensive medical tests from various specialists to determine the cause. Her knees, hips, and lower back seemed to always be in pain and it turns out she had worn away some of the cartilage in her knees. On top of that, she was predisposed to arthritis. Her active lifestyle might have taken a toll on her body, but it didn’t have to stay that way. She was recommended several options to manage the pain – chiropractic care, acupuncture, massages, physical therapy, and of course surgery. She thought for sure surgery would be the only answer. However, she couldn’t be more wrong as physical therapy is just as effective as surgery in many cases.

Jane might not be a real person, but she represents millions of Americans who find themselves in similar situations as they grow older. Many people think that the only solution to pain is opioids and surgery. However, studies have found that physical therapy does a better job of managing pain and even helps you avoid surgery.

Besides the obvious differences, physical therapy is very different from surgery. Furthermore, the outcomes of physical therapy vs surgery are also different.

Physical Therapy Vs Surgery For Knee Conditions
One of the most common problems both in youth and in adulthood is knee pain. Caused by injuries, conditions such as OCD, arthritis, or a muscle imbalance, knee pain affects thousands of Americans both young and old. Many people believe that a knee injury automatically spells disaster for surgery either immediately or later on in life. However, physical therapy has been proven to be just as effective as surgery for dealing with knee injuries.

In one study, researchers found no significant differences between patients who underwent surgery for a torn meniscus and arthritis and those who did physical therapy instead. The biggest difference between physical therapy vs surgery was cost and recovery time. Someone who undergoes surgery must go to postoperative physical therapy for many months and then move on to regular physical therapy to get back to normal. The total recovery time can take anywhere from 6 to 12 months, plus large amounts of medical bills from the surgery.

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However, for someone who receives regular physical therapy alone, the recovery time is up to six months in most cases. Not only do you cut the cost of surgery and opioids in most cases, but you also shorten your recovery time. Furthermore, the benefits of stand-alone physical therapy are longer lasting if the patient continues with specific strengthening exercises and the right physical activity passed the treatment time.

Physical Therapy Outweighs Surgery Risks
Although many people think that surgery is the quick and easy answer to going back to the pre-injury and pre-pain days, this is most often not the case. In fact, in most cases, surgery results in longer recovery times, and the problem could still affect you later on in life. There are many risks to surgery and high costs that make physical therapy a first option and a better alternative. Although risks are uncommon and happen in only about 2% of cases, compared to the fact that there are no risks to physical therapy it may be better to try therapy first.

Risks include:

Complications from anesthesia;
Blood clots;
Allergic reactions;
Nerve damage;
Knee stiffness and motion difficulties in the knee.
For costs, surgery to repair a torn meniscus, for example, can cost up to $5,000 whereas physical therapy on average is around $2,000. For a total knee replacement, the cost can be upwards of $50,000. When you’re looking at those prices, physical therapy is the most cost-effective treatment to try first before heading to the operating room.

Benefits Of Physical Therapy Over Surgery
Even with surgery, many patients find themselves unable to return to their preinjury or pre-pain lifestyle. Moreover, many surgical patients find it necessary to take opioids to manage post-surgery pain and even maintain taking opioids if the pain subsides but continues. Physical therapy, on the other hand, works well at effectively managing pain both as an alternative to surgery and as a post-surgery treatment.

There are many benefits to physical therapy that make it a better option than surgery:

It maximizes your ability to move pain-free. Physical therapists are considered movement experts, knowing how the body should move and spotting when something is wrong. They’ll treat movement problems to decrease pain and get you back to normal.
It strengthens the right muscles. Many times, injury and pain stem from muscle instability and weakness. Physical therapists can spot those weaknesses and give you strengthening exercises that prevent pain, injury, and ultimately surgery.
Because physical therapy does such a good job with pain management, many patients find it unnecessary to take opioids or have surgery. Avoiding opioids and surgery are two of the biggest benefits of physical therapy as long-term pain management