COVID-19 restrictions have set the stage for back pain claims to rise once employees are able to return to work. Poor ergonomics at home, stress, and lack of care access can cause and exacerbate back pain symptoms. When people are able to get to the doctor, a treatment backlog follows.

And when people in pain don’t get the right treatment for back issues early on, they’re more likely to eventually seek out expensive surgery. Chances are, costly insurance claims for surgery and advanced imaging will spike after COVID-19. MSK pain already tops the list of expensive conditions for most self-insured employers.

The story could be different, however, if telemedicine can intervene. In the case of back pain, telemedicine can provide non-invasive and appropriate care in a convenient, accessible format.

How back pain treatment gets off track

Under normal circumstances, patients in pain usually visit their primary care physician first. Around 30% of people with back pain receive advanced imaging, such as MRI scans. These scans rarely provide useful information – up to 80% of people without pain show abnormalities in these high-cost tests.

The results can be misleading and suggest to patients that surgery can or has to fix the problem. Back surgery costs $100,000 on average – and is ineffective at addressing symptoms nearly 50% of the time.

Telemedicine can deliver the right care for back pain, at the right time, and allow patients to avoid high-cost care in the future.

“In a lot of cases, there are non-surgical treatment options that effectively reduce pain and improve quality of life,” says Meredith Christiansen, DPT, PhD, clinical research scientist at Fern Health. “If someone gets the right care from the start, which includes high-quality exercise therapy, active recovery, and mental health support, they are less likely to need surgery.”

Reducing high-cost back pain claims

Telemedicine has emerged as a natural solution under COVID-19 restrictions. Virtual care for conditions like chronic back pain helps sufferers address issues now, before they get worse.

Remote programs can also be more robust than in-person care. For musculoskeletal conditions, up to 50% of physical therapists don’t use standardized results measurements. Telemedicine that incorporates technology for assessments and progress tracking can bring high-quality care to patients, no matter where they live.

Programs like Fern Health also include a mental health component. Mental health treatment is part of the recommended first-line treatment for low back pain. It’s rarely a part of in-person treatment programs, however.

Up to 95% of people with chronic back pain have generalized or non-specific symptoms. Because there are multiple factors that contribute to their pain experience, people need a comprehensive, holistic treatment approach to effectively reduce pain

What factors cause pain in addition to physical injury? Emotions and pain processing regions in the brain are connected. Stress, anxiety, depression, and other emotions can send the body’s nervous system into overdrive. Then, the nerves send signals to the brain that it interprets as pain – even if an injury has already healed.

That doesn’t mean pain is “in someone’s head.” The feelings of pain are real – they just may not be directly related to tissue damage. That’s why the Fern Health program addresses the negative thought patterns that can make it more difficult to recover from chronic pain.

How can employers help?

Healthcare costs are projected to rise 7% this year, on top of another 5% increase. Employers manage healthcare costs and work to meet the needs of their employees. They can reach both goals by taking a close look at avoidable, high-cost insurance claims such as unnecessary back pain surgery.

Remote care has emerged as an effective and convenient care approach. Beyond COVID-19 social distancing, telemedicine can continue to reduce the backlog of in-person care and bring convenient, high-quality treatment to those who need it. When people with back pain access the right care at the right time, they’re less likely to seek costly, less effective care in the future.

Learn how Fern Health can support low back health at your company.

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