Health Care Services

Physical Therapy: An Alternative for Pain Management

We are in the middle of an opioid epidemic. Nearly 25.3 million adults suffer from daily (chronic) pain, according to the CDC. Yet a large number of patients, many of them seniors, need help managing pain. Are there alternatives to these medications, which may cause addiction and dangerous side effects?

Physical therapy is one of the non-opioid alternatives recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in recently released guidelines that urge prescribers to reduce the use of opioids for most long-term pain management. The guidelines indicate that while prescription opioids are appropriate in certain cases (such as cancer treatment, palliative care, and end-of-life care), non-opioid approaches are preferred, given the damaging potential side effects of opioids, which include depression, overdose, and addiction, plus withdrawal symptoms when stopping use.

Physical therapy helps people improve their mobility, decrease pain and live a healthier lifestyle. The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) promote physical therapy as a superior alternative to medication for pain management.

APTA’s #ChoosePT campaign and the CDC guidelines come at a time when increasing numbers of Americans, no matter what their economic class, are being touched by the opioid epidemic, which includes misuse of prescription opioids and heroin. According to the CDC, the rate of overdose deaths involving opioids has nearly quadrupled since 1999, and in 2012 enough opioid prescriptions were written for “every American adult to have their own bottle of pills.” non-opioid pain management options exist, and that they have a choice when it comes to their care.

“Opioids come with numerous serious side effects and only mask the sensation of pain,” explained APTA member Joseph Brence, PT, DPT. By contrast, physical therapists treat pain through movement. They also play a key role in the crucial patient education process, including setting realistic expectations for recovery. “Research shows that physical therapist treatment can reduce or eliminate the need for opioids by improving physical function, increasing range of motion, and decreasing pain,” said Brence.

Physical therapists treat patients of all ages and physical abilities, and the CDC guidelines point out that “high quality evidence” supports exercise as part of a physical therapy treatment plan for the treatment of low back pain, hip or knee osteoarthritis, and fibromyalgia—conditions that affect millions of Americans.

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Source: The American Physical Therapy Association (, adapted by IlluminAge AgeWise. Visit to learn more about the use of physical therapy for pain relief.