Tying shoes, walking up stairs, getting into a car or simply carrying your grandchild – there are countless daily activities that merge with our origins. Most of us hardly think about them. But for the 127 million Americans with musculoskeletal pain (MSK), these everyday background movements come to the fore.
Unlike heart attacks, strokes, or cancer, MSK conditions will not appear in any ranking of America’s leading causes of death. This is because the effects of MSK conditions usually creep up on us over time, as with arthritis, which develops gradually over many years. In addition, MSK conditions may be several dominoes before other health events. When the statistics record a heart attack, what goes unmentioned is the comorbid arthritis that makes exercise too painful – present in more than half of patients with heart disease. Whether it’s weight gain or depression or social isolation, it’s nearly impossible to stay healthy when it’s too painful to move.
While mortality tables may be missing MSK’s upstream domino, actuaries certainly aren’t. MSK conditions cost the US economy a staggering $600 billion, with about half of those costs avoidable. In addition, MSK spending has doubled over the past decade, fueled by elections operations, with no noticeable improvement in results. Behind the economic cost is the hidden human toll – the fear of constant pain, anxiety and depression.
Many patients see MSK as “just part of getting older,” taking Advil and Tylenol until it’s time for a hip replacement, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Physical therapy (PT) has long been proven as effective as the back or knee surgery for general conditions. But the PT course means sitting in traffic, copays, babysitters and missed work.
New technologies such as wearable sensors and AI-driven computer vision are now able to capture a patient’s movements right from home with the same precision as Hollywood film labs – delivering therapeutic exercises using a smartphone or tablet.
Ensuring fair and personalized care
Each person’s MSK status is unique and is influenced by biological, psychological and social factors. This explains why different populations—people of color and rural residents—are affected differently or disproportionately. Analyzes of the recent CDC National Health Survey showed that people of color and lower-income groups with chronic pain and mental illness are more likely to experience higher levels of pain and a greater impact on their daily lives.
One in four women have pelvic floor muscle dysfunction, which can cause persistent pain, an urgent need to urinate, or even leakage after coughing. On average, women suffer for 6.5 years before seeking care due to lack of awareness and limited access to pelvic floor physical therapists.
Older adults, long considered digitally naïve, receive digital physical therapy care with higher adherence rates than younger people. Pain, lack of balance and fear of loss of independence are the main motivators to get the technology. A recent study with a Medicare population showed that older adults who participated in a digital PT program reported much lower MSK-related costs—6.2 times less than those who received only in-person physical therapy .
Technology makes it possible to deliver both consistent and personalized care – whether you’re in rural Montana or downtown Manhattan.
Treatment of the whole person
Your musculoskeletal system is central to your overall health, influencing and being influenced by: lifestyle, behavioral and emotional risk factors such as lack of sleep, depression, stress or obesity. This is why it is difficult to address knee arthritis or chronic back pain in isolation. What is required is a holistic approach to MSK care – providing not only physical therapy but also lifestyle changes and mental health support.
MSK’s most carefully designed care programs (digital or otherwise) include multidisciplinary care teams combining physical therapists, physicians, nutritionists, health coaches, and even social workers.
The growing adoption of digital care for back and joint pain
Over four hundred thousand Americans will turn to a digital PT program this year, a 1000% increase from just a few years ago. This is an encouraging sign as more and more people who did not have access to PT are now able to benefit from it. Continuing to find ways to access these new technologies will help us further close the care gap and give more people the chance to live healthier and happier lives.
Photo: Liubomyr Vorona, Getty Images