Back Pain Treatments: Physical Therapy vs. Surgery

The pain of a back injury or chronic condition can be overwhelming and affect your day-to-day activities. If you’re at that point, it’s time to visit a back pain specialist. Depending on your back pain, there are generally two approaches to choose from for treatment: surgical and nonsurgical. Depending on your condition, there could be a handful of treatment options your doctor will present to you. When it comes to back pain treatment, New Jersey’s Coastal Spine wants to help find an approach that works for you. Typically, at Coastal Spine, we recommend surgery as a last resort unless your condition clearly requires it.  When you’re in pain, making a big decision like this can be difficult. If you haven’t visited a doctor yet about your condition, it’s best to be prepared and have a good idea of what your best options may be. Let’s take a look at two popular treatments for back pain: physical therapy and surgery.

Physical therapy

The goals of physical therapy are to decrease pain, increase function, and provide education to ensure the pain does not occur again. Physical therapy is often the first approach to back pain relief. It involves passive physical therapy, like heat/ice packs, to reduce patient’s pain and active exercises, like stretching and aerobic conditioning, to rehabilitate the spine and strengthen the surrounding muscles. The treatment plans for physical therapy are highly personalized. A physical therapist will evaluate your condition and develop a personalized program to help you get back to your everyday life.

Beyond just back and neck conditions, people with a wide-variety of conditions can benefit from physical therapy. See a list of conditions here.

Oftentimes, patients choose physical therapy because the thought of surgery is scary. Although there may be a longer rehabilitation period than with surgery, physical therapy appeals to many because there are less risks and potential complications. Additionally, in all 50 states, a patient can visit a physical therapist without a referral or prescription from a physician.

For lower back pain, physical therapy can be just as effective as surgery. In the case of lumbar spinal stenosis, a Harvard Medical study found that physical therapy works just as well as surgery for back pain treatment and comes with fewer complications. The study goes on to provide evidence to support the theory: in most cases of spinal stenosis, patients should first try a well-designed physical therapy program before resorting to surgery. Read more about the study here.


Your doctor may recommend surgery as a back pain treatment. New Jersey doctors at Coastal Spine are experienced and specialize in spine surgery. The goal of spine surgery is to resolve the underlying back or neck problem. In some rare cases, surgery may be required immediately rather than trying other methods first. Some patients even prefer surgery over physical therapy because they’re eager to return to their regular activities. Ultimately, the decision have surgery is up to the patient.

Coastal Spine offers minimally invasive spine surgery. This type of surgery enables spine surgeons to make the smallest incisions possible while achieving identical results compared to open spine surgery.

There are many different types of surgeries like decompression surgeries and fusions.

If nonsurgical methods and physical therapy did not work for your neck or back pain, the next step would be surgery. Usually, surgery is considered after a 6- to 12-week course of nonsurgical treatments. If you decide to have back surgery, it’s important to prepare for your post-surgical recovery period. Depending on the type of surgery, recovery could span from a few weeks to a few months. In fact, usually after back or neck surgery, physical therapy is recommended to enhance the recovery process and decrease the chances of future pain.

When it comes to back pain treatments, there’s usually no single best answer. Treatment should involve starting with the least invasive measures possible and then, if needed, working up to surgery.

If you’ve gone to a physician and they recommended surgery right away, it’s smart to get a second opinion. See more situations where it’s a good idea to get a second opinion in our blog post.

coastal plain

Accessibility Toolbar