PT for pain

Seek alternatives for pain management

By Barbara Pierce

Those of us on Medicare are the most vulnerable to becoming addicted to pain medication.

We’re the fastest growing population with opioid use disorders. Opioids are pain relievers available legally by prescription, such as oxycodone (OxyContin®), hydrocodone (Vicodin®), codeine, morphine, and others.

As older adults, we’re the age group that most often has the need for pain medication. To treat pain, doctors frequently prescribe opioids because they work so well. But the consequences for many are grave, as opioids are highly addictive. The risks of opioid use are well established. Research has found that taking opioids for more than a few days increases your risk of long-term use, which increases your risk of addiction.

The number of people who become addicted to pain medication is staggering.

While addiction is the most serious consequence of taking opioids to manage pain, there are many other unpleasant side effects of opioids, including constipation, drowsiness, nausea, vomiting, mental clouding, and hallucinations.

There are alternatives to opioids to manage pain.

“Physical therapy is a proven alternative to treat pain,” said Shawna Marmet, outpatient clinical supervisor and wellness coordinator at Sitrin Health Care Center, New Hartford. “Utilizing physical therapy to treat pain through movement is a much better option than masking pain with opioids.”

The Centers for Disease Control recommends physical therapy to treat pain. It’s a natural way to lessen pain and the need for opioids. By getting physical therapy within two weeks of an injury, the need for opioids is reduced by as much as 60%.

The CDC’s recommendations point to “high-quality evidence” that treatments provided by physical therapists are especially effective at reducing pain and improving function in cases of low back pain, fibromyalgia, and hip and knee osteoarthritis.

Additionally, a number of studies show the effectiveness of physical therapist interventions in preventing, minimizing or eliminating pain in patients following surgery, in patients with cancer, and in other scenarios.

“Physical therapy treatment can utilize different ways to treat pain including exercise, manual therapy and education,” said Marmet. “Studies have shown that people who exercise regularly experience less pain.” Physical therapists develop exercise programs to address poor conditioning, impaired strength, musculoskeletal imbalances, or deficiencies that may lead to pain.

Eliminating discomfort

“Manual therapy, using hands-on manipulation of joint or soft tissue, can reduce pain by improving mobility and decreasing the swelling and inflammation that causes pain,” she added. Research shows manual therapy techniques are effective at reducing low back pain, discomfort associated with carpal tunnel syndrome, and other sources of pain.

“Also, education from a physical therapist can be provided as a tool to help people understand the science behind pain and what things contribute to the experience of pain. This education will lead them to seek opioid treatment less frequently,” she added. When people understand the mechanisms and contributors to their pain, they are more likely to seek alternatives to medication.

Stress management is effective in reducing pain. Interventions such as mindfulness, relaxation and visualization can help reduce pain and improve overall functioning. These interventions can be taught by a physical therapist.

Persons with pain often have difficulty sleeping; sleep deprivation can make one more sensitive to pain. Physical therapists can educate patients regarding better sleep habits to help combat the vicious cycle of persistent pain.

When physical therapists work with a patient in pain, they use tests and measures to determine the causes of that pain and to assess its intensity, quality, physical characteristics, and how long it has been occurring. They also evaluate the patient for risk factors for pain to help prevent future issues.

Once the contributors to a patient’s pain are identified — and the patient’s functional and mobility goals are clear — the therapist designs an individualized treatment program combining the most appropriate techniques, including but not limited to exercise, manual therapy, and patient education to address the underlying problems.

This means that the diagnosis and prescribed treatment you receive is truly customized to help you achieve the best possible results. The bottom line is physical therapists are experts in human movement and rehabilitation.

So the next time you’re in pain, before you resort to opioids, see a physical therapist and restore pain-free movement. With the help of a physical therapist, you could eliminate pain without opioids.

“Opioids don’t help you recover. They don’t help you get your range of motion back. They don’t help you make the progress that you need to make to get your strength back and return to your life,” said patient Joan Maxwell online, in support of physical therapy to alleviate pain.

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