When Physical Therapy Is Better Than Painkillers
The three main goals of physical therapy are to strengthen weak areas, increase mobility, and reduce pain. We need to understand the last one, reducing pain, in the larger context of the nation’s ongoing opioid epidemic, and to see physical therapy as part of a larger strategy against opioid addiction.
Physical therapy’s greatest strength in the fight against the opioid epidemic is in preventing the problem before it starts by cutting off some of the causes. Many people with opioid addictions started out with some injury or surgery, get overprescribed, and became dependent even after the pain stopped.
Here are a few reasons physical therapy may be better than, or a necessary accompaniment to, painkillers for pain management.
Dependency is itself a possible side effect of opioid use, but even without addiction opioid-based painkillers have side effects like depression, dehydration, “dizziness, headache, fatigue, drowsiness, nausea, vomiting, and constipation.” The occurrence and severity of these side effects get higher the more powerful the painkillers used, and the longer they are used, so every bit of painkiller use that we can cut back on through physical therapy is a gain for patients.
A more complete solution
Opioids mask the pain, and they should be used when the pain is so severe that masking it is the immediate priority. After all, the pain of surgical sites can be so bad that it prevents sleep and other basic functioning. But once pain medications have met that need, doctors and patients should focus on reducing the causes of future pain.
A report by the American Physical Therapy Association blamed the pills-first approach:
The health care system has, since the mid-1990s, employed an approach to pain management that focuses on the pharmacological masking of pain, rather than treating the actual cause(s) of the pain when its source can be identified.
By gradually increasing mobility and strengthening certain muscle groups, physical therapy can suppress pain at its source so that the patient won’t need opioids to mask it.
Speaking of “certain muscle groups,” another advantage of physical therapy is that it can be targeted to highly specific parts of the body that are causing pain, whereas painkillers are blunt-force tools, affecting the entire body or none of it.
In addition to being able to focus on specific body areas, a physical therapy regimen can be tailored to the specific needs of the patient. There are only so many prescription pain medications available, so none of them are to address any one patient’s specific needs.
The stakes are high
We don’t want to sound too negative, but the fact is that across the country lives are on the line. The APTA report above notes that in 2016, the year that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidelines for prescribing opioids, over 42,000 people had died from opioid abuse, and 17,000 of those could be traced to commonly prescribed pain medications. Greater awareness and use of physical therapy could quite literally save lives.
In the final analysis, physical therapy is the safe and effective option because no one gets addicted to it, it is safe for long-term use, and as long as you pay attention to your pain level, it’s basically impossible to overdose on carries no side effects.
If you or a loved one have been prescribed painkillers for muscle pain and worry about the possibility of dependency or side effects, talk to the specialists at Haymarket Physical Therapy at one of our three locations. We can set a free screening to evaluate the patient’s needs and discuss options.
Haymarket, Va.: (703) 372-9695
Bristow, Va.: (571) 549-3677
Bealeton, Va.: (571) 281-4293