For many people living with chronic pain, physical therapy is a major part of their treatment plan. When combined with other pain management techniques, physical therapy can help bring long-term relief. In fact, physical therapy is often one of the first lines of treatment for pain, as it is not only a conservative and non-invasive form of treatment, but it’s also proven to be effective.
But what is it about physical therapy that makes it so effective for managing pain? Why do so many doctors recommend gentle exercise for patients, when it might seem like that is the opposite of helpful? The answers might surprise you.
The Benefits of Exercise
When you have been sitting for a while, or slept in an awkward position, you probably feel stiff and uncomfortable for a bit once you begin moving again. Now imagine that you have been sedentary or had to maintain an uncomfortable position for several days, weeks or months. Chances are, you’re going to be in pain.
Often, when we experience pain, the first instinct is the protect the affected area or avoid moving it because it increases the pain. In time, this causes inflammation of the muscles and joints, and if the pain is chronic, it can cause the muscles to become weaker and less flexible, which in turn causes more pain and discomfort. It’s a vicious cycle, and one that many people inadvertently create in an attempt to avoid pain.
Physical therapy for chronic pain helps keep affected areas strong and flexible to help reduce pain. Just like stretching when you first wake up can help get rid of the stiffness that you feel after lying down all night, physical therapy uses gentle exercises and stretching to reduce the pain and stiffness from injury, arthritis or other problems. Sometimes, the exercises are passive, meaning that the patient remains still while the therapist manipulates limbs to stretch and strengthen them, while other times the exercise is active, and the patient might lift light weights, stretch, walk or perform other exercises. The exercise isn’t always comfortable, but focusing on rebuilding strength and flexibility can go a long way toward alleviating pain.
Improved Self Care
It’s been said that the majority of healthcare takes place outside of the provider’s office, and that is just as true with pain management as with anything else. Generally speaking, a patient’s behaviors and activities between appointments makes a significant difference in how well their pain is managed, and physical therapy plays an integral role in helping to guide and educate patients on the right ways to manage their pain. Physical therapists help patients develop more comfortable and safe methods of performing everyday tasks, for example, while also telling them which activities to avoid. Physical therapists also educate patients on safe exercises they can do on their own to help reduce or avoid pain, tell them what they should eat and drink to manage their pain and develop better habits to avoid exacerbating the problem. For instance, poor posture can significantly increase back pain. Physical therapy can help correct the issue, showing the patient how to sit and stand properly so to prevent further damage and discomfort.
Another aspect of physical therapy is the re-education of your senses, with the goal of alleviating or eliminating the sensation of pain. In some cases, when you have experienced an injury or been living with severe pain, your nervous system still registers the pain even though the cause has been eliminated. Physical therapists use light stimuli on both the affected and unaffected areas to help retrain or re-educate the brain to distinguish between pain and no pain. For instance, assume you broke your ankle several months ago, but despite the break healing perfectly, you still feel pain. A physical therapist would use a stimulus on that ankle and one your other ankle, so your brain can compare the sensations, and ultimately, learn that the ankle with pain doesn’t actually hurt.
Physical therapy is just one form of pain management, and it is typically used in concert with other therapies, including cognitive behavioral therapy and medical interventions. It is highly effective and an important part of any pain management plan.
About the Author
Michale Ben is a freelance writer and nutritionist from Nevada, who has written on behalf of a range of clients including the Live Strong Network, and Demand Media. In addition to writing about a range of topics, he enjoys playing basketball and cooking in his spare time.