Clinician approaches to new spine pain cases in primary care: Balance of opioid prescribing and early linkage to exercise therapy and spinal manipulation

Mark R. Bauer*, Patrick Richard, Grant Ritter, Jangho Yoon, Mary Jo Larson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Rationale, Aims and Objectives: Spine pain (SP) is common and often disabling. Clinical practice guidelines discourage opioid treatment and outline the value of varied nonpharmacologic therapies (NPTs). This study elucidates the amount of variability in primary-care clinicians' (PCPs') prescribing of opioids and in their cases' receipt of the two most common NPTs (exercise therapy and spinal manipulation). Method: The design was a retrospective cohort study examining variation in the treatment of PCPs' new SP cases, classified by receipt of (a) prescription of an opioid at the initial visit; (b) exercise therapy and/or spinal manipulation within 30 days of initial visit. The study was set in the primary care clinics at military treatment facilities of the US Military Health System in the period between October 2011 and September 2016. Results: The majority of cases did not receive a study treatment (66.3%); 19.6% of cases received only NPT within 30 days of initial visit; 11.5% were prescribed only an opioid at the initial visit with receipt of both NPT and opioid during early treatment rare (2.6%). Exercise therapy within 30 days exhibited more than a twofold difference in interquartile percentile rates (IQR) (median provision 15.8%, IQR 9.8%−22.1%). The other treatments exhibited even greater variation; specifically, spinal manipulation (median 8.5%, IQR 3.3%−15.8%), and opioid at initial visit (median 10.3%, IQR 4.4%−18.2%). The availability of physical therapists and doctors of chiropractic had significant association with several clinical provision rates. Conclusion: Among providers of spine care for a sample of Army soldiers, there was substantial variation in the early provision of exercise therapy, spinal manipulation, and opioid prescriptions. The magnitude of the case-mix adjusted variation and its association with facility availability of providers suggests that quality of care initiatives may help reduce this variation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)355-366
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice
Issue number3
StatePublished - Apr 2024
Externally publishedYes


  • health services research
  • primary care
  • rehabilitation


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