Chronic Pain Treatment May Include Physical Therapy

America's zest for life combined with an economy that allows us to pursue our recreational passions has produced an unintended side effect. We're hurting.

There are probably many reasons for American's aches and pains, but according to the American Academy of Pain Medicine, an estimated 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain. Arthritis tops the list for causes of disability according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Chronic pain occurs as a result of mixed signals from the nervous system for an extended period — it can be weeks, months or years. A chronic pain may have started as a single episode, injury or no injury at all.

Pain presents a cost to society in a number of ways. Suffering from pain can impact a person's quality of life reducing their ability to enjoy daily activities. Pain sufferers are less likely to be fully productive at work because of loss of function or lack of sleep. Financially, pain becomes a cost when patients seek relief through medical care including surgery, medications or therapy. That is why people seek effective treatments for pain.

People who suffer from pain should consult a health care provider to identify the source or cause. A provider may choose a treatment or management plan for pain that includes physical therapy, medication or surgery. That depends on the source of pain, the level of pain and its impact on your daily life. The provider also considers the patient's medical history and health goals.

Much media attention has been given to an increase in the abuse of prescription medications. Drug overdoses and deaths related to prescription medications have increased. Currently, according to the CDC, 91 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose (including prescription opioids and heroin).

Prescription medications have side effects, too. People can build up a tolerance to a medication, meaning they have to increase the amount they take to get the same level of pain relief. Some patients may become dependent on the drug and have withdrawal symptoms when they discontinue use. Other side effects may include sleepiness or dizziness, constipation, confusion and depression.

Very often a specific cause for pain that lasts greater than three months is difficult if not impossible to pinpoint, making more invasive procedures more risky and less successful. For those reasons, surgery may be an unnecessary option leading those in pain to seek conservative care from a physical therapist.

How can physical therapy help?

Physical therapy is a less invasive way to treat chronic pain. Going this route may take longer than medication or surgery, and it will require more effort on the part of the patient to complete the exercises, but studies have shown similar results when comparing surgery to physical therapy alone in chronic low back pain, fusions, knee arthroscopy and neck pain. A physical therapist may use several techniques for pain management:

• Exercises to increase muscle strength and flexibility and endurance

• Assessing and improving posture and body mechanics such as gait

• Manual therapy which involves various techniques for moving muscles or manipulating and moving joints

• Teaching self-management strategies to reduce need for care and medication down the road

• Work towards goals which are important to you and your lifestyle

Manual therapy consists of specific, hands-on techniques that may be used to manipulate or mobilize your skin, bones and soft tissues. A therapist also can teach a patient how to become more aware of his or her posture and improve posture to reduce impact on different parts of the body.

Someone who has a concern about pain can make an initial appointment with a primary care provider. You can ask your provider about physical therapy services and how that can help you manage your pain.