Physical Therapy vs Opioids: When to Choose Physical Therapy for Pain Management

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that prescription opioids sales have increased 400% in the United States. This is despite there being “no overall change in the amount of pain that Americans report.” The CDC released opioid prescription guidelines recognize that prescription opioids are appropriate in certain cases, including cancer treatment, palliative care, and end-of-life care, and also in certain acute care situations, if properly dosed. However, the CDC recommends nonopioid approaches including physical therapy for the other pain management.
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  • The risks of opioid use outweigh the rewards: Opioid side effects can include for depression, overdose, addiction, and withdrawal symptoms. Experts agree that “opioids should not be considered firstline or routine therapy for chronic pain.”
  • Do more than mask the pain: Opioids reduce the sensation of pain by interrupting pain signals to the brain. Physical therapists treat pain through movement while partnering with patients to improve or maintain their mobility and quality of life.
  • Most pain or function problems are related to low back painhip or knee osteoarthritis, or fibromyalgia :The CDC cites “high-quality evidence” supporting exercise as part of a physical therapy treatment plan for those familiar conditions.
  • Opioids are prescribed for pain: CDC recommends that patients should receive “the lowest effective dosage,” and opioids “should be combined” with nonopioid therapies, such as physical therapy.
  • Chronic pain increases risks: “Chronic” pain (pain lasting more than 90 days) increases the risk for continued opioid use. An estimated 116 million Americans have chronic pain each year. Nonopioid therapies are “preferred” for chronic pain.” The CDC recommends “clinicians consider opioid therapy only if expected benefits for both pain and function are anticipated to outweigh risks to the patient.”
Talk to a Physical Therapist

Tell your medical provider you would like to consult with a physical therapist to discuss options for non-opioid treatment.

The CDC states that “patient education and discussion before starting opioid therapy. It is critical that patient preferences and values can be understood and used to inform clinical decisions.”

Physical therapists play a valuable role in the patient education process, including setting realistic expectations for recovery with or without opioids.

Related Resources:

The American Physical Therapy Association launched a national campaign to raise awareness about the risks of opioids and the safe alternative of physical therapy for long-term pain management. Learn more at our #ChoosePT page.

Content courtesy of APTA’s Choose PT 

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