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Physical therapy better than prescription drugs for chronic pain

Sep 7

During a time when health care professionals and researchers are seriously reevaluating the effectiveness and safety of prescription drug use for chronic pain, it’s worth noting that physical therapy has long been considered a safer, cheaper and more effective treatment for such conditions – this as we begin Pain Awareness Month, an annual September effort by the American Chronic Pain Association (ACPA). 

More than 25 million Americans – about 1 in 10 people – suffer from chronic pain, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). 

“The more you move, the better you feel,” said Rachel Noble Benner, MS, a mental health counselor who works with patients in chronic pain, a researcher with Johns Hopkins University, and writer of the article “Eight Ways to Deal with Chronic Pain,” published by the Washington Post. “Strategically strengthening and stretching your body, especially parts that are affected by chronic pain, can increase mobility, decrease pain and improve overall mood.” 

The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) agrees. In new CDC guidelines released in March – guidelines which question the safety and effectiveness of opioid use for the treatment of chronic pain – physical therapy and exercise are specifically mentioned as options for managing chronic pain which “may actually work better” than oft-abused opiate painkillers like Vicodin and OxyContin. 

Besides being more effective, physical therapy is less risky and leads to far fewer negative side effects. In contrast, the CDC reports that opioid use lead to more than 28,000 deaths in 2014 alone. 

Chronic pain is described as any pain or discomfort that lasts more than three to six months. Unlike acute pain, which can be attributed to a specific ailment or injury, chronic pain often cannot be pinpointed to a specific condition. The ACPT describes chronic pain as “pain that continues when it should not.” 

And for years now, in reaction to the hopelessness and desperation that often comes with suffering from chronic pain, some physicians have turned to prescription drugs in hopes of ending the pain. That’s the wrong approach, wrote Andre Machado, chairman of the Neurological Institute at the Cleveland Clinic, on the Time Magazine website. 

“The problem is that too often, opioids are prescribed to treat chronic pain, a quick fix that can foster deadly addiction,” he wrote. “Instead, the goal of treatment for pain should be recovery of function, not complete resolution of pain.” 

Machado pointed to physical therapy, in tandem with counseling, as the new “starting point” of treating chronic pain as opposed to the “treatment of last resort.” 

“That is, the goal will be to help patients go through physical (and mental) rehabilitation so they can do the activities they used to take for granted: move, care for themselves, work and care for their loved ones,” he continued. 

A report about chronic pain released by the National Institutes of Health in January of 2015, in fact, specifically mentions physical therapy as a key, non-pharmaceutical option for treating, managing and even ending chronic pain. 

From education, strength and flexibility exercises and manual therapy, to posture awareness and body mechanics instruction, physical therapists are licensed and trained to identify the causes of chronic pain, then establish an individualized treatment plan for alleviating and possibly eliminating the pain.