Physical therapy for arthritic knees tends to cost patients more out-of-pocket and involves a lot more hassle than a quick steroid shot to soothe an aching joint.
But in the long run, physical therapy is at least as cost-effective as steroid injections and is more likely to provide longer-term relief, a new study concludes.
“Even though maybe the initial costs of physical therapy are a little bit higher over the course of the year, when you look at all the knee-related costs over the year, the amount of benefit you got from physical therapy made it more cost-effective,” explains lead researcher Daniel Rhon, director of the Primary Care Musculoskeletal Research Center & Clinical Scientist Center for the Intrepid at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.
People with arthritic knees typically have two main options for treatment outside surgery — either get a steroid injection to ease swelling and pain, or go through a round of physical therapy, Rhon says.
Weighed against each other, physical therapy was found in a recent clinical trial to be more effective than steroid shots.
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Why is physical therapy more effective?
“When you have an active intervention like exercise, it’s going to have longer-lasting effects because it strengthens your knee so then you have a little more function,” Rhon shares. “The injection doesn’t change the strength of your knee, and once the pain goes away, your knee isn’t necessarily functioning any better if you haven’t strengthened it.”
But a typical course of physical therapy is much more costly than steroid injections.
A PT evaluation and seven additional sessions cost between $557 and $919, compared with a cost of $99 to $172 for a single injection, researchers said in background notes.
Physical therapy is also more hassle to the patient, Rhon notes. They have to get time off work to go to two or three sessions a week, and they might have to line up child care. They also have to shell out more money in co-pays, because of repeated visits.
So Rhon and his colleagues decided to dig deeper into the results of the recent clinical trial, to see if the added cost of physical therapy would be justified in the long run.
For one year, the trial tracked 156 people who were randomly assigned to receive either