As health care professionals and researchers continually reevaluate the effectiveness and safety of prescription drug use for chronic pain, Philadelphia physical therapist Chris McKenzie emphasizes that physical therapy has long been considered a safer, cheaper and more effective treatment for such conditions.
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 McKenzie, owner of McKenzie Sports Physical Therapy in Philadelphia.
“In this sense, 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 & Prevention (CDC) agrees.
In new CDC guidelines released in 2016, health professionals not only question the safety and effectiveness of opioid use for the treatment of chronic pain. They also tout physical therapy and exercise 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 American Chronic Pain Association 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,” said McKenzie. “It’s no wonder prescription drugs can seem like a great option at first.”
“But,” McKenzie added, “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 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, McKenzie says.
“Through physical therapy, chronic pain sufferers become empowered,” McKenzie 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.”