During a time when healthcare professionals and researchers continue to reevaluate the effectiveness and safety of prescription drug use for chronic pain, Kitsap County physical therapist Megan Morris emphasizes that physical therapy has long been considered a safer, cheaper and more effective treatment for such conditions.
This remains especially notable as we approach 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).
“We like to say that movement is medicine for both the body and the mind, and this is especially true for those suffering from and attempting to manage chronic pain,” said Morris, doctor of physical therapy and therapeutic pain specialist (TPS) at Kitsap Physical Therapy and Sports Clinics.
“In this sense,” Morris added, “physical therapy plays an integral role in helping people overcome chronic pain, and it’s much safer than many of the alternatives.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) agrees.
In guidelines released in 2016 —which question the safety and effectiveness of opioid use for the treatment of chronic pain — physical therapy and exercise are specifically mentioned by the CDC as options for managing chronic pain that “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, according to KPT. In contrast, the CDC reports that opioid use lead to more than 67,000 deaths in 2018 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.”
“Those dealing with chronic pain can start to feel hopeless and desperate as they’ve been dealing with their condition for a long time, sometimes with little to no relief,” Morris said. “It’s no wonder prescription drugs can seem like a great option at first. But they were never meant to be the long-term solution they’ve become, as they’re risky, addictive and can lead to bigger problems. Physical therapy, in contrast, is a true, long-term way to treat and manage chronic pain.”
A report about chronic pain released by the National Institutes of Health in January 2015, in fact, specifically mentions physical therapy as a key, nonpharmaceutical 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, Morris says.
“Through physical therapy, chronic pain sufferers become empowered,” she said. “Many learn that, through professional guidance, education, movement and exercise, they’ve had it within themselves all along to manage this seemingly bleak condition.”