We think of physical therapy when we think of recovering from an injury or a surgery. Broken leg? You'll need physical therapy. Knee replacement? See you in PT. However, physical therapy can be effective in treating a condition more than 3 million Americans live with every day: chronic pain.
"It is a much better option than pain killers in many circumstances, particularly with longstanding musculoskeletal conditions," says Tamara Dangerfield, MPT, a physical therapist with University of Utah Health. "Movement-based therapies become more and more effective for pain control the more they are practiced, and the side effects include improved mood, blood pressure, weight control, bone density, endurance, strength, and sleep."
Pain relief through physical therapy is based in the knowledge that all forces in the body affect each other. When a nerve is pinched it can be due to compression from the muscle or fascia. Reducing that strain and restoring fluid movement will help alleviate the pain. It works similarly for other types of pain. "Many people do not realize that the nerves and blood vessels that attach to all structures in the body, including organs as well as musculoskeletal structures, travel through muscle and fascia tissue," says Dangerfield. "We work to restore the balance of coordination, flexibility, and strength so that movement, blood and nerve flow are not hindered."
Unlike other methods of reducing pain, physical therapy aims not to stop pain quickly and temporarily, but over time and for the long term. This is why it is a perfect for patients who want to avoid taking opioid painkillers—which often are offered as a solution. "Opioids are only effective at treating these types of pain for short periods of time and in long-term situations become less and less effective with huge risks and side effects," says Dangerfield. "Taking a pill may seem like a great option for people when they hurt and just want the pain to go away, but we have seen huge detrimental effects on people who have come to rely solely on opioids for pain control."
Physical therapy encompasses a variety of treatments, which means patients who do not respond to one method may find relief in another. Treatments run the gamut from massage to join manipulation to dry needling and electrical stimulation. "Just because something doesn't work the first time or even if it worsens pain, that does not mean that a person has failed physical therapy," says Dangerfield. "There are infinite possibilities to modify a person's program to keep it comfortable and keep making progress."