Physical Therapy for Pain Management

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Physical therapy is increasingly being recognized as an effective way to address long-term pain

Why is physical therapy useful for pain management?

Physical therapy has been shown to both help prevent future injuries as well as manage trauma, illness or disabilities already present. Chronic — or long-term — pain arising from severe injuries that failed to heal properly, musculoskeletal disorders, congenital conditions, obesity or even normal aging can last for months or years and has no cure. For this reason, finding the proper treatment is crucial.

Treating pain through prescription opioids can come with unpleasant side effects and have the potential to be highly addictive. Physical therapy avoids these pitfalls while also improving movement, balance and muscle control.

How does physical therapy treat pain?

Professional physical therapists have been trained in methods to decrease pain in both passive or active ways.

Passive therapy can include:

  • Ice/heat packs – the cold helps to reduce blood flow and swelling that causes pain while heat can relax muscles and increase flexibility
  • Electrical stimulation – this method excites nerves which can confuse regular pain preceptors and provide relief
  • Manual therapy – included in this category are passive joint movements, massage and lymphatic drainage
  • Dry needling – this approach uses non-injection needles that are inserted into the skin surrounding the trigger point in order to reduce muscle tension
  • Ultrasound – sound waves directed at the area causing you pain can block pain messages from reaching your brain

Active therapy can include:

  • Movement/activities – this approach is commonly approached through stretches and other actions that improve range of motion
  • Aerobic conditioning – this method includes swimming, cycling and walking which provide a low-impact way to improve blood flow
  • Strength/pain relief training – improving the muscles surrounding the affected area using weights or resistance bands can increase range of motion and relieve stress

Each individual’s needs are unique, which means that the best treatment plan will differ from person to person based on factors such as body type, habits and medical history. It is also normal for therapists to adjust treatments as the program progresses. Most plans will require patients to practice some exercises at home between appointments.

Who are physical therapists?

It is important to seek guidance from a licensed health professional who has received specialized graduate training. Certification is granted through passing both a national exam and state licensing practices. It is possible in many states to make an appointment with a physical therapist without a referral from your primary care physician. It can also be up to particular insurance policies whether a prescription is necessary in order to receive physical therapy.

Where can you get physical therapy?

Physical therapy is not limited to a hospital setting. It can be administered in specific sports medicine centers, outpatient clinics and rehabilitation centers. It is also possible for a therapist to perform home visits or work in nursing homes, schools or offices.


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