Physical Therapy for Chronic Pain: Benefits of Pain Treatment

What Is Chronic Pain?

Pain is the number one reason people seek healthcare treatment in the United States. Medical treatment for chronic pain is one of the top healthcare expenses in the U.S. The CDC reports in 2016 around 20.4% of U.S. adults had chronic pain and 8% had severe chronic pain. People with higher rates are those living in poverty, without a high school education, and adults with public health insurance.

Simply put, chronic pain lasts three months or more, beyond the expected recovery period from an injury or condition. It can also occur as a part of a disorder associated with pain, such as arthritis and fibromyalgia. Chronic pain is a problem with the brain’s processing ability around pain. After an injury, such as a torn ligament or a bone break, your body will send pain signals to your brain through pain receptors where the injury was. With chronic pain, your body continues to send these pain signals and your brain interprets this as a threat to the body. This causes people with chronic pain to rest this area of the body, take pain medications, and live in constant discomfort.

Other factors can worsen the experience of chronic pain. It can take a serious toll on mental, physical, and emotional health. People often get stuck in a cycle of chronic pain in which their recreation, work, or family life is affected. Depression and anxiety are common experiences as people often feel hopeless. Research shows that there is even a link from days struggling with mental health to days where chronic pain is the most intense. Chronic pain can lead to other health problems, like obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, due to fear of being active and making their pain worse. They also may not be able to work, which can add even more stress with financial troubles.

Physical Therapy For Pain Management

Physical therapy for chronic pain can help people manage and thrive after their pain levels go down. Your physical therapist will determine the source of your chronic pain and help you work on the surrounding muscle imbalances or movement patterns related to your condition. Many people develop chronic neck and back pain, which may have started from an injury or gradually over time. It is likely that there are things you are doing on a daily basis, such as posture, activities, and sedentary lifestyle, that are worsening your pain levels. Physical therapy will involve overcoming your pain with slow and steady changes, such as posture improvements, avoiding activities that heighten your pain, and working on improving your movement so you can return to your normal life.

Physical therapy also involves modalities such as electrical stimulation, which aim to desensitize the nervous system and lessen the pain signal that reaches your brain. Physical therapy will help people with conditions like arthritis and fibromyalgia by addressing specific painful areas and helping improve movement overall. People with chronic pain over their entire bodies benefit from gentle aerobic exercise where they move their joints, like swimming or bicycling.

Your physical therapist will educate you that pain does not always equal harm and that movement is safe in most cases. Successful chronic pain treatment when it comes to injuries is changing your lifestyle and the view around your pain.  Recent advances in pain neuroscience education (PNE) are important to include in your treatment plan.  PNE helps retrain the brain’s response to pain signals.  

How A Physical Therapist Can Help With Chronic Pain

In addition to exercises for chronic pain, your physical therapist will help you understand your pain. Your physical therapist will find out what has caused your chronic pain and how it impacts your life. Whether you have lingering back pain, a prior knee surgery, or an ankle sprain that just won’t stop hurting, your PT has experience with your condition and knows how to help. Your physical therapist knows that chronic pain is frustrating, and they will listen to you carefully to know what your priorities are around your treatment. This way you will have a teammate who will guide you to achieve your goals around movement with less discomfort.

Your PT will also come up with creative solutions to manage tasks, so you can focus on other things besides your pain. Your exercise plan will gradually improve the strength and flexibility of your muscles and the mobility of your joints, which is proven to reduce chronic pain in the long run. You may have heard of manual therapy as well, which is a hands-on treatment to get your muscles and joints more mobile. Through massage techniques and joint mobilizations, your physical therapist is able to help improve the quality and range of your movement, which usually decreases pain!

If you are struggling with chronic pain and you have tried multiple treatments without success, turn your frustration into action and see a physical therapist. Physical therapy has been proven time and time again to help decrease pain levels and tolerance to movement in patients with chronic pain.

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