Try as we might, almost everyone has pain at some point in their lives. Pain is by far the most common reason people seek out health care. But treating pain, especially chronic pain lasting for more than three months, is not always easy. Treatment often requires a multifaceted approach. There are a number of different components due to the many variables that contribute to a patient’s perception of pain and their response to treatment. The most common treatments are medications, but is there a way of obtaining natural pain relief?
The Opioid Crisis
Opioids are natural and synthetic drugs that are commonly prescribed for pain. Some patients, such as those with cancer or other serious illnesses, and those who are on end-of-life care, may require opioids due to the extreme amount of pain they are in. Opioids may also be appropriate for a limited period of time for certain short-lived (acute) painful conditions. However, it’s not clear if they are also effective for patients with chronic pain. But this has not stopped medical professionals from prescribing these drugs to address all types of conditions.
Since the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, doctors have been prescribing opioids on a grand scale to treat acute and chronic pain. Over the years, prescribing these drugs has become a standard practice that many doctors assumed was safe and effective. Despite this fact, there has always been a lack of high-quality research on the benefits and harms of opioids. As a result, opioid use is rampant. At least 400,000 people have died of an opioid overdose between 1999-2017.
The epidemic has brought light to the situation and raised questions about prescribing these drugs to patients dealing with pain. Professional organizations like the CDC have provided guidelines as to when and how to give prescriptions, and what to do to address this problem. One of the central messages is that physical therapy provides a first-line treatment alternative to opioids for managing pain.
Studies show physical therapy treatment is a safer alternative
- In August of 2016, the U.S. Surgeon General at the time, Vivek Murthy, MD sent a letter to 2.3 million medical professionals to address the opioid epidemic provide a call to action to end it. The letter, combined with an infographic, assisted these professionals in the prescription of opioids. One of the central recommendations made was to consider non-opioid therapies first, with physical therapy being listed as an important alternative.
- The current U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, MD spoke at an event hosted by the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) this past January. He focused on the opioid crisis and the role of physical therapy in addressing it. He highlighted the essential role that physical therapists can play by offering pain-relieving services to patients, and stressed the importance of educating these individuals on a national scale.
- A task force, made up of experts in various medical fields, formed in 2018 in order to establish guidelines for managing pain and the role of opioids in the process. One of the key guidelines was that restorative therapies like physical therapy should be a central component of patient care. It points out that these therapies play a significant role in managing acute and chronic pain. Positive patient outcomes are more likely when they are used.
Physical therapy treatment benefits
There are many reasons why physical therapy has become recognized as such an effective alternative to opioids. Narcotics, like opioids, are only meant to decrease someone’s perception or sensation of pain. They do not address the issues that are causing it. This is why opioids should only be used temporarily until the pain subsides. Physical therapy, on the other hand, is not a temporary solution. Instead, it focuses on identifying the origin of the pain, and then creates a personalized treatment program designed to alleviate it permanently. This provides natural pain relief that lasts longer than drugs.
The benefits of physical therapy and its power to help patients avoid opioids appear in a number of recent research studies. One study investigated whether seeing a physical therapist early for low back pain had an impact on the amount of healthcare each patient used and if they received an opioid prescription. The results showed that early physical therapy reduced healthcare utilization and costs, and also lowered the rates of opioid use.
But despite the many signs that physical therapy is a much smarter and safer solution, progress still needs to be made in changing the way doctors manage patients with pain. Another study reviewed data on patients with low back pain for over 14 years. It was found that doctors only referred about 10% of patients to physical therapy. This rate remained low through the entire study period. The number of doctor visits that led to an opioid prescription, however, increased during this time in this same population.
It’s important for medical professionals to do their part by prescribing opioids only when they are absolutely necessary, and for short periods of time. Patients must also realize that they have a choice in this matter. Seeing a physical therapist first will help you get on the path to an active and self-directed approach to pain. This includes patient participation to yield the best possible results. It also comes without the side effects and serious risks associated with an opioid prescription. Patients can be more confident that their treatment will help them improve while avoiding the dangers of these medications. It is a more natural pain relief solution, and strives to correct the source of the pain, rather than masking it.