Virtual physical therapy may help with back pain and other issues

If you’re among the 1 in 4 Americans who live with back pain, new app-based exercise therapy may offer another way to help address the issue without having to leave home.

Virtual physical therapy for back pain is already covered by some UnitedHealthcare health plans, as is virtual care for dealing with shoulder or knee problems and other musculoskeletal issues. The benefits of these virtual physical therapy (PT) sessions may include:

  • Increased access to treatment, especially in rural areas
  • Greater flexibility for scheduling appointments and completing exercises
  • Lower costs
  • Less time away from work

During virtual PT done via a computer, smartphone or tablet, a therapist typically supports a patient through exercises and stretches designed to strengthen core muscles that support recovery from pain or injury, improve mobility and promote good posture.

The app option: For eligible members of certain UnitedHealthcare health plans, another potential option is a self-paced program called Virtual Physical Therapy. It guides members through PT exercises using the Kaia Health app, which includes motion coaching for physical exercises, mind-body relaxation techniques and educational videos.

How it works: The app uses a front-facing smartphone camera and artificial intelligence technology to analyze a user’s movement patterns while performing PT exercises. The program gives real-time tips for carrying out safe, effective exercise sessions that typically last between 10-25 minutes. If a certified health coach is needed, one can be accessed using an in-app chat feature.

The app is part of a broader set of in-person and virtual musculoskeletal support tools available to eligible UnitedHealthcare members recovering from surgery or injury, including knee, back or shoulder problems. The programs are designed to help improve health, reduce costs and avoid often unnecessary invasive treatments, including imaging, surgery or opioid prescriptions.

Back pain is one of the most common reasons people see a doctor or miss days at work. The issue often develops without a cause that your doctor can identify with a test or an imaging study, although there are some common physical and job-related risk factors. The pain can be a short-term issue (acute) or become a long-term (chronic) problem.

Here are five strategies to consider that may help you avoid back pain or recover from it:

  1. Maintain a healthy lifestyle – Back pain is more common among people who are not physically fit, especially those who are overweight or obese. Stay active in ways that may help strengthen the muscles that support your back and abdomen.
  2. Protect your spine – Sleep on a mattress of medium firmness to help minimize any curve in your spine, and wear comfortable, low-heeled shoes.
  3. Quit smoking – Smokers have increased rates of back pain, in part, because smoking may prompt coughing, which can lead to herniated disks. Tobacco use can also restrict blood flow and oxygen to the spine and increase the risk of osteoporosis.
  4. Lift with care – When you need to pick up a heavy item, keep it close to your body and lift with your knees. Avoid twisting motions while lifting. 
  5. Focus on good posture – Working at a desk all day may contribute to back pain, especially if your posture is poor or you’re sitting in a chair that lacks back support. Consider talking to your doctor or a chiropractor about creating a workstation that is ergonomically correct.

For more ideas about preventing and treating back pain, visit uhc.com.