Many people addicted to opioids are first exposed through a medical prescription for pain. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of opioids decreases after time, requiring higher doses of the drug for the same effects.
Research is showing that physical therapy could diminish the need for opioids, and lower the risk of addiction.
Part of the proposed solution to the opioid crisis is to limit new opioid exposures, and physical therapists are an important part of this process.
"The whole treatment plan is that we want to try and wean the patients off the pain medication so they can lead a healthy lifestyle without having to take medication their entire life," said physical therapist Scott Humpal.
A study suggests trying physical therapy first may at least ease the strain on the patient and also curb reliance on opioid painkillers, which carry their own risks.
"All across the country people are starting to realize that taking medication is not a long-term fix," said Humpal.
"However patients do need it to get through their physical therapy regimen and get weaned into a home exercise program to help in their long-term recovery," said physical therapist Elizabeth Wilson.
"Studies have shown recently and in the past that with physical therapy and pain medication, patients are more compliant with physical therapy and therefore long-term outcomes become better for them, and they get better quicker," said Wilson.
How can physical therapy and exercise help reduce long-term pain? Opioids action masks the pain, whereas physical therapy treats the source of pain through movement.
"So with physical therapy we do exercise, we do modalities that include electrical stimulation, ultrasound, light therapy, and manual therapy to help our patients with their pain levels while they are here exercising.
And that will then transfer into long-term affects that will then wean them off their pain medication," said Wilson.
During this research itturned out that patients who saw a physical therapist before trying other treatments had an 89 percent lower probability of eventuallyneeding an opioid prescription, a 28 percent lower probability of having any advanced imaging services, and a 15 percent lower probability of making one or more ER visits.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also issued prescribing guidelines in 2016 that recommend physical therapists be considered a first-line treatment for people with chronic pain conditions.
Research supports these positions, including research papers studying opioid use for common musculoskeletal pain conditions like back, knee and neck pain.