Leveraging Physical Therapy as a Pain Management Treatment Option

This post is part of AAOA’s “Allies in Action” series, highlighting how our partners are working to combat prescription opioid misuse and abuse through education and awareness.

Today’s featured partner, the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), is a professional not-for-profit organization representing more than 100,000 physical therapists, physical therapist assistants and students of physical therapy nationwide. The mission of APTA is to build a community that advances the profession of physical therapy to improve the health of society.

When discussing pain management with their healthcare providers, patients have the right to ask about alternatives to prescription opioids like physical therapy. To help address the prescription opioid epidemic and raise awareness around the rights, risks and responsibilities of opioid use, APTA is highlighting how physical therapy can be a safer, more effective tool for pain management than opioids. APTA’s efforts are backed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; in fact, in 2016 the agency updated its policy recommendations to endorse physical therapy over prescription opioids as a preferred treatment plan for chronic pain.

An Alternative to Opioids: The Benefits of Physical Therapy for Pain Management

In an update to its 2018 white paper, “Beyond Opioids: How Physical Therapy Can Transform Pain Management to Improve Health,” APTA reinforces the important role physical therapist service plays in preventing and addressing prescription opioid misuse. Though some situations warrant the safe use of prescription opioids, APTA notes through the white paper that these products are often prescribed when safer and more clinically appropriate interventions should be employed. Physical therapists — through an examination and evaluation that employ tests and measures — assess the causes, impact, pattern and intensity of pain. They then develop a plan to address the impact of pain on function and quality of life with consideration of the patient’s goals and values. The plan may include therapeutic exercise, manual therapy, patient education and lifestyle management, among other treatments geared to promote movement and alleviate pain.

The white paper illustrates the clinically proven benefits of these physical therapy treatment plans for chronic pain. Studies have shown that people who exercise regularly experience less pain, and that manual physical therapy techniques can reduce pain and discomfort such as chronic back pain, arthritis-related pain and knee pain. Not only can physical therapists treat pain more effectively, but it can also prevent pain from occurring. Physical therapy has been found to improve postoperative outcomes and reduce complications after surgery. Physical therapy can also eliminate the need for surgery by alleviating chronic pain and preventing injuries from occurring in the first place.

Charting a Path Forward: Reducing Prescription Opioid Misuse and Abuse

By addressing the patient as a whole person, physical therapists treat and can even prevent the root cause of pain — avoiding the prescription of opioids and decreasing the probability of opioid misuse. Despite these clinically proven benefits, patients are often in the position of advocating for themselves when it comes to exploring physical therapy as an alternative to opioids. That’s why APTA’s #ChoosePT campaign joins AAOA in educating patients about their rights when it comes to opioids, including the right to inquire about alternative treatments.

#ChoosePT uses public service announcements, consumer education resources and social media to educate the public about the potential of physical therapy as an effective approach to improved function and pain management. The website also offers a “Find a PT” tool to directly and immediately connect patients in pain with physical therapists who can treat them without the use of prescription opioids.

Thanks to APTA, more people are exploring physical therapy as a treatment option for chronic pain. By raising awareness about the rights, risks and responsibilities associated with opioid use, APTA supports AAOA in educating and empowering people to seek alternatives for pain management while simultaneously combating the opioid crisis. For more information, check out AAOA’s consumer resources, including our Rights, Risks and Responsibilities resource to help educate patients, providers and consumers about prescription opioids.