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Is Physical Therapy a Useful Treatment For Chronic Pain?

Written by LVMC on in Health & Wellness

Physical therapy may be combined with medications or used on its own to reduce and treat chronic pain.

Physical therapy may be combined with medications or used on its own to reduce and treat chronic pain.

Chronic pain is typically treated using medications. However, many medications provide only temporary relief and do not address the root cause of pain. Physical therapy may be used with medications or on its own to reduce your chronic pain.

October is National Physical Therapy Month. This month, the American Physical Therapy Association is raising awareness about the benefits of physical therapy.

Continue reading to learn more about physical therapy and how it can reduce your pain.

What Is Physical Therapy?

Physical therapy is a healthcare specialty that focuses on helping people improve their mobility. This therapy is ideal for those who have a physical disability, limited movement, or loss of function. Physical therapy is also ideal for those who have chronic pain due to an illness or injury.

Many people with chronic pain cannot perform essential everyday tasks such as getting dressed or cooking meals. Physical therapy helps these people become more independent and move more freely without experiencing pain.

In addition to treating people with chronic pain, physical therapy can treat people with:

  • Amputations
  • Arthritis
  • Balance problems
  • Bowel or bladder incontinence
  • Broken bones
  • Cancer recovery
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Spinal cord injuries
  • Sports injuries
  • Sprains and strains
  • Stroke

Can Physical Therapy Reduce Chronic Pain?

Yes, physical therapy can effectively reduce chronic pain. It can also help people become more independent.

Pain can often reduce your quality of life and well-being. It can also interfere with your ability to do essential tasks without needing help. Many people with chronic pain feel as if they are burdensome to their family members and loved ones. In addition to reducing pain, physical therapy can help people improve their quality of life.

How Does Physical Therapy Reduce Pain?

Physical therapy focuses on addressing the root cause of someone’s pain. For example, if a muscle sprain is causing pain, your therapist may have you exercise to strengthen the muscles around the sprain.

There may be some instances where physical therapy cannot fully treat the cause of your pain. For example, severe arthritis cannot often be cured or reversed. However, physical therapy may help reduce the severity of pain caused by arthritis.

Your physical therapist will create a treatment plan for you based on the source and cause of your pain. Your treatment may change over time based on your recovery and how you respond to therapy.

What Causes Chronic Pain?

Chronic pain can sometimes be difficult to treat, as it can be caused by many different factors and health conditions. If you have chronic pain in a specific area like your back, the pain may be coming from somewhere else in your body. The key to treating chronic pain is being able to identify the main source.

Common causes of chronic pain include:

  • Arthritis
  • Cancer
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Endometriosis
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Headache and migraine
  • Infection
  • Injuries, such as a fracture or sprain
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Nerve damage
  • Shingles

Which Physical Therapy Treatments Can Reduce Pain?

Physical therapists use a variety of treatments to reduce pain.

Exercise is the most common type of physical therapy due to how it can increase your strength and mobility. It can also improve your flexibility and joint stability. Your physical therapist will show you exercises that can reduce pain and improve your condition. Walking, cycling, and weight training are common exercises you may do in physical therapy.

Other physical therapy treatments for chronic pain include:

  • Deep tissue massage, which improves blood flow to muscles to relieve tension and pain.
  • Dry needling, where tiny needles are inserted into muscles to reduce pain and tension.
  • Graded motor imagery (GMI). GMI using your brain’s neural connections to reduce pain. For example, you may be told to visualize movements without really moving.
  • Heat or ice packs, which may decrease soreness, pain, and inflammation.
  • Sensory re-education. This therapy retrains your nervous system to reduce pain.
  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). TENS uses electricity to decrease pain signals sent from your body to your brain.
  • Ultrasound, which heats your tissues to improve blood flow and circulation to areas causing pain.

What Happens During a Physical Therapy Session For Pain?

Physical therapy sessions are different for everyone based on their pain condition.

During your first treatment, your therapist will review your medical history and ask questions about your condition. You will be asked to describe your pain and talk about other treatments you have already tried to reduce pain.

Then, your physical therapist will have you do a series of tests. These tests will check your balance, strength, endurance, posture, and range of motion. Some of these tests may be uncomfortable. Your therapist will ask you to communicate whether your pain increases or decreases during these tests.

Lastly, your physical therapist will develop a customized treatment plan. You may be shown exercises you can do at home between therapy sessions.

Does Physical Therapy Hurt?

Physical therapy is not meant to be painful. However, some movements may be uncomfortable and cause you to feel sore for a few days afterward. Any soreness you experience is often due to activating weakened, unused muscles.

Your physical therapist will ask you to say something if you experience pain at any point. This will help your therapist know whether it's time to change your treatment.

When Does Chronic Pain Go Away After Physical Therapy?

Chronic pain treatment affects each person differently. Some people experience pain relief right away. Others may not notice improvements for several weeks or months.

The best thing you can do to find relief from pain is to go to all your appointments and do your exercises. If you are receiving other pain treatments, follow your doctor’s instructions. Be consistent with your exercises and medications. Doing this may help you experience relief sooner than expected.

How Is Chronic Pain Usually Treated?

The treatments you receive for chronic pain will depend on whether your doctor knows what's causing pain. If your doctors do not know what is causing your pain, you may be prescribed medications to reduce your symptoms.

Medications commonly used to treat chronic pain include:

  • Opioids, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, and morphine.
  • Benzodiazepines and other sedatives, for those who have anxiety and insomnia.
  • Anticonvulsants, for those who have nerve pain.
  • Antidepressants.
  • Corticosteroids.
  • Muscle relaxants.
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin and ibuprofen.
  • Topical creams, ointments, or lotions that produce heat or cold effects.

Counseling and talk therapy are other common treatments for chronic pain. These therapies may help reduce psychological pain and anxiety. They may also teach you how to mentally cope with pain. Surgery may be used to correct injuries that did not heal correctly and are causing pain.

Chronic pain may also be reduced with alternative treatments. Acupuncture, hypnosis, and meditation are common alternative pain treatments. Your doctor or physical therapist may recommend combining some of these therapies with your current treatments.

What Are the Best Treatments For Chronic Pain?

The best treatments for chronic pain are those that help you experience pain relief. Certain treatments may work better than others, which is why communicating with your doctor and physical therapist is important. For example, if you find that exercise is more effective than medications at reducing pain, your doctor may reduce your dosages or discontinue your medications.

Physical therapy is an ideal chronic pain treatment for those who want to avoid the side effects of medication. Some medications for chronic pain—particularly opioids and benzodiazepines—can be habit-forming and lead to dependence and addiction. According to a 2017 study published in the Journal of Manual and Manipulative Therapy, long-term use of opioids for chronic pain is ineffective and increases the risk of death. Other medications such as corticosteroids can become less effective over time.

Don’t hesitate to inform your doctor or physical therapist if you feel that a treatment is not working, or you want to try a different treatment. Your doctors will help you find the best solution to reduce and treat your chronic pain.

Can Chronic Pain Be Prevented?

Practicing healthy lifestyle behaviors may reduce your risk of developing chronic pain. For example, quitting smoking may reduce your risk of lung cancer. Exercising regularly, getting quality sleep, and eating highly nutritious foods may reduce your risk for many other types of cancers that cause pain.

There are some instances where chronic pain cannot be prevented. Injuries and accidents cannot always be prevented, though you may lower your risk for experiencing these events. For example, you can wear protective gear such as helmets and mouthguards when playing contact sports.

If you recently had a surgery or medical procedure that causes chronic pain, follow your doctor’s instructions to heal as quickly as possible and reduce pain.

Treating Chronic Pain At Lompoc Valley Medical Center

Lompoc Valley Medical Care offers various treatments for chronic pain that may help you find relief. Visit our provider page today to make an appointment and to learn more about our many available healthcare services for you and your family.

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Author: LVMC, Editorial Staff

Our experts in healthcare often discuss the latest topics in health and wellness and share them for the Lompoc community.