The opioid epidemic is real, and it is frightening. Over the past ten years it has grown well beyond the street level addict, reaching people never considered a risk for addiction and overdose. Opioid medications prescribed for chronic conditions such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, back pain, and headaches have led to a health threat far greater than the condition they were intended to treat. Whether delivered through a patch or a pill, these medications have led to a new population of substance dependence.
Prescription opioid deaths have quadrupled since 1999. The distribution of opioid medications for chronic pain has led to an epidemic of addiction and overdose death. Now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is urging health care providers to reduce the use of opioids in favor of safer alternatives for most pain treatment. Physical therapy is noted as one of the safe, effective alternatives recommended in the CDC guidelines.
Research supports the hand’s-on approach of physical therapy to reduce pain and reliance on pain medications. Where opioids mask the sensation of pain, physical therapy can treat both the pain and the underlying conditions causing it. Early physical therapy intervention is essential. Whenever possible I recommend patients try physical therapy first, before pain medication, to relieve their symptoms. Pain becomes a much more complicated issue to manage once dependence on medication occurs. During a thorough physical evaluation with your therapist, you will discuss your pain history and together set realistic expectations for treatment. Your physical therapist may use manual adjustments, joint and soft tissue mobilizations, prescribe exercise, and other specialized therapeutic techniques to treat an entire range of physical limitations or pain. Treatment also includes patient education, which helps you understand the mechanisms of your discomfort.
We are encouraged to see that the medical community is now embracing approaches to pain management that don’t immediately involve prescription medications. We believe this will ultimately accelerate patient recovery while avoiding the dangers of addiction and overdose.