A period of nonsurgical management is recommended prior to surgical treatment for most patients with lumbar spinal stenosis. Currently, little evidence is available to define optimal nonsurgical management. Physical therapy is often used, however its use and effectiveness relative to other nonsurgical strategies has not been adequately explored. This study aimed to describe the use of physical therapy and other nonsurgical interventions by patients with lumbar spinal stenosis and examine the relationship between physical therapy and long-term prognosis. Patients with lumbar spinal stenosis receiving nonsurgical management including those who did or did not receive physical therapy within 6 weeks of enrollment. Primary outcome measures included crossover to surgery, the bodily pain and physical function scales changes from the Survey Short Form 36 (SF-36), and the modified Oswestry Disability Index. Secondary outcome measures were patient satisfaction and the Sciatica Bothersomeness Index. Baseline characteristics and rates of crossover to surgery were compared between patients who did or did not receive physical therapy. Baseline factors predictive of receiving physical therapy were examined with logistic regression. Mixed effects models were used to compare outcomes between groups at 3 and 6 months and 1 year post enrollment adjusted for baseline severity and patient characteristics. Physical therapy was used in the first 6 weeks by 90 of 244 patients (37%) and was predicted by the absence of radiating pain and being single instead of married. Physical therapy was associated with a reduced likelihood of crossover to surgery after 1 year (21% vs. 33%, p=.045), and greater reductions on the Short Form 36 physical functioning scale after 6 months (mean difference=6.0, 95% confidence interval: 0.2-11.7) and 1 year (mean difference=6.5, 95% confidence interval: 0.6-12.4). There were no differences in bodily pain or Oswestry scores across time.
Many patients with lumbar spinal stenosis seeking conservative management receive physical therapy. Using physical therapy was associated with a lower probability of patients receiving surgery within 1 year. Results for other outcomes were mixed with no differences in several measures. Further research is required to examine the effectiveness of physical therapy relative to other nonsurgical management strategies for individuals with lumbar spinal stenosis.