Opioid Alternatives for Pain: Movement and Physical Therapy

Jennifer Reynolds, DPT, TPS
Opioid alternatives to pain management

Did you know that from 2014 to 2015 Rhode Island was one of five states with the highest rates of opioid-related overdose deaths?  And in 2018 alone, 314 people in Rhode Island and over 1,900 people in Massachusetts died from opioid-related overdose.  More than half of those overdoses are linked to chronic pain syndromes, according to a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry. In March 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released opioid prescribing guidelines, recommending that prescribers reduce the use of opioids in favor of safer alternatives.

A safer alternative

While there is no magic cure for pain, there are safer and effective alternatives to opioids. Physical therapy is one that the CDC recommends.

One study concluded that when physical therapy was used within three months of a musculoskeletal pain diagnosis, such as lower back, shoulder or knee pain, patients were less likely to use opioids in the months following the injury. In patients who did use opioids and had early physical therapy, there was a 10 percent reduction in the risk of long-term opioid use.

Physical therapy not only reduces the likelihood of an opioid prescription, it also reduces health care costs. In a study that compared patients with low back pain who saw a physical therapist (PT) as the first point of care, they were 89 percent less likely to get an opioid prescription. In addition, the researchers found a nearly 30 percent decrease in the use of advanced diagnostic imaging studies, and a nearly 15 percent decrease in emergency department visits. All of these factors lead to lower costs.

How physical therapy helps

To help you manage your pain a PT uses a variety of treatment techniques, including hands on treatment, movement and education.  

  • Hands on treatment. The special training of PTs allows them to help you move with less pain.  A PT is skilled in a variety of techniques, such as joint and soft tissue mobilizations, dry needling and/or manipulation.
  • Movement is vital.  We are made to move. But, movement looks different for everyone.  Physical therapy will help you gradually increase your movement at your pace, so you can improve your health and reduce the likelihood of chronic pain.
  • Education. One of the most important elements of your physical therapy is education. There is a growing body of evidence that supports the saying “knowledge is power.”  Our current understanding of pain is vastly different from what it was 15 or 20 years ago. Understanding how pain works is vital in experiencing less pain, having less fear, moving better and enjoying life more.

There’s a grassroots movement to increase awareness of the benefits of physical therapy called GetPT1st. One of their slogans sums it up well: “Movement can replace many drugs, but no drug can replace movement.”

Learn more about how physical therapy and Lifespan Rehabilitation Services can help you.

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