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Chronic pain is an American epidemic. According to a 2018 CDC report, chronic pain impacts 50 million people in the U.S.– more than 20 percent of adults. Over the last two decades, opioids became standard, and prescriptions skyrocketed. But as the medical community and the public have become aware of the negative consequences of long-term use of opioids, including addiction and overdose, it’s clear that we need to find other ways to manage chronic pain. More and more, doctors and patients are saying no to opioids and looking to find safer treatments. Physical therapy is one of the most effective treatments for chronic pain. It strengthens and heals the body instead of merely masking pain.
What Is Chronic Pain?
The Centers for Disease Control defines chronic pain as pain on “most days or every day” in the past six months. Unlike acute, injury-related pain, it’s ongoing–either continuous or in flare-ups. According to the American Chronic Pain Association, the diagnosis can be related either to a tissue injury or damage to the nervous system. Dozens of conditions can contribute to chronic pain. Some of the most common are:
- Back pain
Chronic pain can also have severe emotional and psychological components that patients and providers must address.
Opioids and Chronic Pain
According to ACPA, opioids are acceptable for short term pain. For example, following surgery or a significant injury, an opioid prescription may be appropriate. But prolonged use can have negative impacts, including:
- Dependence or addiction
- Gastrointestinal problems and constipation
- Damage to internal organs
- Balance problems
- Hormonal changes
- Sexual dysfunction
- Memory and concentration problems
There’s a growing consensus in the medical community that there are better ways to manage pain long-term.
What Treatments Are Effective for Chronic Pain?
The American Chronic Pain Association has taken an extensive look at treatments for chronic pain, focusing on alternatives to opioids. In many cases, therapies are used in combination to address the wide-ranging physical and mental impacts of chronic pain. Some of the options include:
- Exercise and body awareness: this includes yoga, pilates, and other techniques to increase activity, which can reduce pain
- Behavioral/psychological treatments, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to address thought patterns and emotions involved in chronic pain
- Mindfulness techniques
- Nontraditional therapies like acupuncture and herbs
- Physical Therapy
How Can Physical Therapy Treat Chronic Pain?
Individuals with chronic pain often stop doing the activities they love, creating a negative cycle. Since physical activity can help reduce pain, it’s crucial to tackle the factors holding us back from being active. Your physical therapist has a range of tools in her toolbox, including both active and passive therapies.
Active therapies are stretching and strengthening exercises that can reduce pain, build strength, and help you get moving again, including:
- Strengthening exercises to help boost muscles around painful joints.
- Stretching exercises to increase flexibility.
- Gently moving the joints to reduce muscle pain.
- Nerve gliding involves gently stretching the nerves to reduce pain. It’s especially useful for sciatica and back pain.
Your physical therapist has a range of proven, hands-on options to treat chronic pain. These include:
- Massage: a PT massage goes beyond a typical massage for relaxation, targeting muscles, ligaments, and fascia with the goal of loosening knots.
- Hot and cold therapies: cold therapies reduce blood flow and decrease inflammation, while heat therapies boost blood flow and relax muscles.
- Ultrasound therapy sends sound waves into your muscles, creating heat and reducing spasms, stiffness, and pain.
- Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) stimulates the nerves using safe electrical signals and can help block nerve pain.
- Dry needling uses medical needles without medication to release trigger points in the muscles.
Physical Therapy for Chronic Pain at Countryside Orthopaedics and Physical Therapy
Chronic pain can take away the desire or ability to be active, launching a negative cycle of sedentary behavior and depression. In many cases, increased activity is precisely what we need to tackle chronic pain. Instead of masking pain, physical therapy focuses on restoring strength, flexibility, and function to get you moving again. At Countryside Orthopaedics and Physical Therapy, getting our patients back to the activities they love is always a priority. Our skilled therapists will create a physical therapy program tailored to your condition and your needs. Once we address the root causes of chronic pain, we can take targeted action through exercises and other therapies to let the healing begin.