#PTonICE Daily Show – Tuesday, December 5th, 2023 – Deck chairs on the Titanic

In today’s episode of the PT on ICE Daily Show, Spine Division leader Zac Morgan discusses recent research supporting the effectiveness of conservative care compared to invasive care, but in particular, the efficacy of chiropractic care compared to physical therapy care. Zac postulates that being hung up on the concept of spinal manipulation is often to blame for reduced PT outcomes when it comes to spine pain. He challenges listeners that the majority of patients are going to seek out & receive spinal manipulation for their pain, so the best course of action is to learn spinal manipulation, practice daily, and understand how to explain treatment to patients in a manner that does not facilitate dependence.

Take a listen or check out the episode transcription below.

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All right, good morning PT on Ice Daily Show. I’m Zach Morgan. I’m lead faculty here with the cervical and lumbar spine management courses and lead that spine division as well. Wanted to bring forward some content this morning. So the title of this episode is the deck chair on the Titanic or deck chairs on the Titanic. But before we jump into the actual content and kind of unpack what we’re, what I’m talking about with that metaphor, I wanted to start out by kind of pointing you all in the direction of the next courses that you can jump into from the spine management side. So we’re wrapped up for the year, but if you’re looking for next year, two options in the middle of the country for cervical spine on the weekend of February 3rd and 4th, we’ve got Wichita, Kansas, as well as Hazlet, Texas. So if you’re in the middle of the country looking for cervical spine, those will be good options. At the end of that month, we’ll be in Simi Valley, California on February 24th and 25th. If Lumbar is the one that you’re looking for, there’s one in January. So Rome, Georgia, 27th and 28th of January. And then March 9th and 10th, Cincinnati, Ohio. And then March 23rd and 24th over in Brookfield, Wisconsin or right outside of Milwaukee. So several offerings there to start the new year for cervical and lumbar. If you haven’t looked into the ice ortho cert, do so. So we’ve, we’ve revamped our website and you can go on there and kind of look at what all is included. Um, but that cert is kicking off. We’re testing people out on the weekends already and it’s been a really good kind of, uh, initial rollout here. So if you’re looking for an orthopedic cert, um, check out the new ice cert and let us know if you have any questions.

I just wanted to kick off today by actually unpacking an article. This article was published in the PT Journal back in September. It came out of the University of Pittsburgh, so that’s probably the crew that does the most looking into back pain, at least in our profession. University of Pittsburgh is pretty famous for a lot of their back pain research. Essentially, this article was titled, First Provider Seen for an Episode of Acute Low Back Pain Influences Subsequent Healthcare Utilization. So definitely a bit of a wordy title, but essentially looking at who do people present to first and how does that influence downstream medical costs. And this was from Christopher Baez and his colleagues over there. Anthony Delito was on this paper as well. So if you’re familiar with Anthony Delito, he’s definitely done a ton in the low back space as well. So really good university, really well done study here, published in our journal here just very recently. So very recent data that we’re looking at here. And let me just kind of talk briefly through what they did with this article with the method standpoint, and then we’ll talk about the outcomes. And then we’ll unpack the metaphor and end with some action items this morning. So really what was done for this article was a retrospective analysis. So they looked back at cases of acute low back pain, meaning that the person had not been to any sort of a medical provider within the last three months for back pain. So they looked at acute cases of low back pain and they looked at where they presented and then those downstream medical costs and how those things were affected based off of where they presented first. So they were looking at chiropractic care, physical therapy, primary care physician, emergency department, and so on, and basically comparing the outcomes downstream depending on where the person went from one of those professions. As far as outcomes, what were they looking into? They were looking into things like episode length, future CT MRI use, how often did those patients wind up getting that advanced medical imaging, how often did they opt for things like injections or opioid prescriptions, specialist referral downstream, getting to a spine surgeon, those types of referrals. Actual surgery was one of the outcomes they looked at, and then just unplanned care. So they looked at all these variables, retrospectively after these people had presented to the health care system one way or the other to see if there was any difference in the variables over the following year after they had that first episode of acute low back pain. And two things really jumped out to me as I was reading this article. So there’s two very obvious things to me.

First, conservative care definitely outperforms more invasive care when it comes to the reduction of those expenditures. So physical therapy and chiropractic would be the ones we would lump into conservative and physical therapy and chiropractic significantly outperformed basically the emergency department primary care physician any of the other places that patients would have presented, which makes a lot of sense to us as the conservative care crowd. We know that a lot of times getting that patho-anatomic diagnosis is not helpful at all and often drives a lot more care. So if a person ends up getting that type of a diagnosis early on, often they’re going to end up in the health care system for longer. as physical therapists and then even often as chiropractic work, we’re more targeting symptom behavior versus anatomical diagnosis, so it makes a bit of sense that conservative care outperformed non-conservative care.

But the second thing that jumped out to me as I was reading through this paper is that chiropractic care significantly outperformed physical therapy. Basically, at pretty much everything other than use of radiographs, which is not overly surprising. Chiropractors have the ability to prescribe radiographs. But if you look at things like episode length, they got us by a couple days. If you look at CT, MRI use, injections, opioids, surgical referrals, actual surgery and unplanned care, The chiropractic profession outperformed the physical therapy profession within that conservative care chump pretty significantly. I’m not really trying to pin our professions against one another. What I’m more trying to point out is they pulled their weight. Whenever we look at this data set and we see essentially how this course of care went through for the patients, it’s clear the chiropractors pulled their weight. Yes, we helped from the physical therapy side as well, especially compared to non-conservative care, but within conservative care, I would say we left them stranded a bit and didn’t do as good of a job as they did. And so I couldn’t help but start to think about why wow, we’ve really got to step it up as our profession. Like if we want to be in this conservative care battle, it’s not enough for us to not contribute to that side of the fight. We have to step it up. We have to pull our weight in this fight. So let’s talk a little bit about maybe some of the ideas as to why PT didn’t do quite as well as chiropractic care in this study. Because they didn’t postulate too much on that in the actual article, but I have some thoughts surrounding it. And so I just want to talk through those things a little bit.

Let me just start by saying, team, every year since I’ve been a PT, even from school till now, things like spinal manipulation have always been super challenged within our profession. So it’s very clear when you look at medical practice guidelines, when you look at our clinical practice guidelines, when you look at most of the clinical practice guidelines, especially for the management of acute low back pain, they have suggestions for spinal manipulation. But within our profession, what I’ve always witnessed is anytime we, as I put out posts about spinal manipulation, we get a decent amount of kickback from our own profession. we get all sorts of commentary on those posts suggesting potentially that it’s not as safe as it should be or maybe it’s going to create dependence or things of this nature and I think in our profession we argue about that a lot and it winds up plaguing us when it comes to the execution of those techniques or even feeling okay about using those techniques on patients and team This is something we have to get rid of if we’re going to contribute our share to the fight with conservative care for the management of acute low back pain.

I don’t remember when I first heard the metaphor about arguing over the deck chairs on the Titanic, but it really fits in my mind to this current conversation. It doesn’t make any sense to argue over the deck chairs on the Titanic, right? But imagine that. Imagine the ship is sinking, it’s dropping underwater, it’s hit the iceberg, And you’re up at the nose of that ship that’s going to sink last, arguing about where the deck chairs go, which table they go out, how you want to orient those. That makes no sense, right? The ship is sinking. So I think in our profession, we tend to do this. We tend to argue over the deck chairs on the Titanic. Let me unpack that a little bit. What’s the Titanic in this metaphor? The Titanic is that people are going to have their spines manipulated when they have acute pain. You can like that or not like that, but the fact is true that patients or just our communities seek that intervention out in relatively high volume when they have acute pain. That’s happening. What are the deck chairs that we’re arguing about as a profession? That’s where these things like Will it create dependence? Does it work? Is it safe? These types of questions are arguing over the deck chairs. We know it’s safe, right? Like that has become very clear. If you look through the literature, when spinal manipulation is done well, it’s a very safe and effective technique, especially relative to other techniques that people might would choose or even other medications that people might would choose for the management of their acute pain. So we know it’s safe. We know it works well for acute pain. We’ve got enough data to show that it works well. Also, I mean, I would say even empirically, just looking at how many people are driven towards that intervention, I think empirically we know it works. And then, does it create dependence? I think that comes a lot more from the narrative for how it is presented to the patient than it does from the actual technique. So I don’t think it has to create dependence. And we sit here and argue over these types of variables. Meanwhile, people are going to have their back manipulated regardless of whether we come to some sort of a conclusion or not. And that conclusion doesn’t really influence the end result of those people seeking out that intervention because they think it’ll be helpful to absolve some of their pain scenario. So it’s very clear to me that we need to start pulling our weight here. We’re too busy arguing over meaningless variables.

What we actually need to do is lend a hand in this fight to our chiropractic colleagues who are doing a very good job managing things conservatively. It’s time that we take some action here. So team, I wanted to end this podcast by talking about what that action might would look like as a profession and hope that over the coming years we can start to shift to the profession in this direction. I do feel the wave of that currently and it’s really exciting to see that more and more therapists are starting to utilize interventions that their patients want to meet that patient expectation and help create a narrative surrounding it. But I wanted to leave you with just a few action points. So first things first, I think you have to learn how to thrust manipulate. I understand there’s a lot of argument in this space, but if you aren’t able to do the intervention, the patients will never hear these arguments. So if we leave them stranded, or even leave them to just seek out all sorts of other health care, when what they want is spinal manipulation and if you could provide that to them, you could then help them understand the mechanisms, those underlying mechanisms that might make them feel more robust about their body versus feeling weaker or feeling fragile. We want to learn to do it so that that way when patients need it, we can provide it and we can also provide a supportive narrative that creates independence, not dependence. And this is possible. And so I think we have to learn to manipulate, otherwise we have no fight. Nobody’s going to listen to the data. They’re going to need to see it empirically. And so I think for us, we’ve got to get them in and actually do these interventions with them. To get good at that, I think you have to practice daily. So first, learn to manipulate, then practice daily. So whether that’s on your spouse, on a family friend, or practicing on patients that are in front of you with no contraindications and perhaps even some indications for doing those techniques, I think we should practice these techniques daily so that you can get good at the psychomotor skills. Once you’ve mastered them, of course, focus on other things. But if it’s still a skill set that you’re refining, I would do those speed drills that you pick up in classes. I would practice on your colleagues and friends and patients. And then lastly, I think we have to, while doing these techniques, support a better narrative surrounding why they work. We want our patients to feel more empowered by feeling better following thrust manipulation, not to feel dependent by feeling better. So I think changing that narrative requires the learning of techniques and ability to execute the techniques well. That way the patient is actually interested in what you have to say. If you can’t do the technique and you tell the patient that the technique doesn’t work, a lot of patients are going to leave feeling like, well of course they think that, they’re not able to do it. So I really don’t think we can win any sort of battle of decreasing the dependence on things like spinal thrust manipulation without being experts ourselves in doing it.

So team, that is just kind of the overarching thoughts on that article. It just jumped out to me that It was really nice to see the conservative care on the whole did really, really well. But I was just disappointed because I feel like I would love to carry more of the load alongside of our chiropractic colleagues and not leave them out there to fight this battle on their own. And I think a decent amount of professional infighting creates challenges surrounding actually learning these techniques and then utilizing them on patients. And I think we have to stop the professional infighting. We have to stop arguing over the deck chairs on the Titanic and just accept the fact that the ship is sinking. And it doesn’t matter the orientation of those chairs. We have got to quit arguing over these factors and we’ve got to get to where we can actually do these techniques to people that are in pain so that we can help the chiropractic profession start to reduce a lot of those long-term costs that get associated with also not just costs but worse outcomes for the humans in front of us. You can criticize it all you want, but at the end of the day, what we’re trying to avoid are things like opioids, things like injections, things like advanced medical imaging. These things, not just within 12 months, create a lot of expenditure and a lot of disability, but within the rest of that person’s life, they do the same thing. So that’s all I’ve got for you this morning, team. Let’s tackle this problem together. Let’s get out of the way. As far as the profession is concerned, stop arguing over little things and start to add these valuable interventions to our patients with acute pain. Hit me up if you have any questions, comments, or concerns in the thread here. I’ll be checking it all day. Happy to further the conversation. But that’s all I’ve got for you this morning. Take it easy and have a good Tuesday, team.

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