Physical Therapy for Back and Neck Pain Can Reduce Opioid Use

When patients are first seen at our spine specialty practice in New Jersey, they go through a comprehensive diagnostic process geared towards helping us understand how your condition developed as well as how it is manifesting physically. Once we’ve assessed your situation and what is causing your pain, we usually suggest starting with a conservative approach, which may include physical therapy.

We’ve found that physical therapy can help patients minimize pain, and in many cases, it provides relief without the need for surgery. Even for patients who end up needing minimally-invasive spine surgery, the exercises and strategies learned in physical therapy can help patients recover more quickly and can protect them against future injury. Now a study has found that physical therapy can also have a profound impact on whether a patient will end up needing opioid drugs for pain.

A study published in the journal Health Services Research has found that physical therapy’s use curbs reliance on opioid painkillers. Researchers compared the health insurance claims of over 150,000 patients diagnosed with low back pain and compared the records of those who were prescribed physical therapy early in the course of their treatment against those who either were not prescribed physical therapy or for whom the referral did not come until later. They found that those with early physical therapy had an 89 percent lower probability of needing opioids. They also had a 28% lower chance of needing advanced imaging studies and a 15% lower chance of needing to be seen in the Emergency Room for back pain. Physical therapy resulted in lower costs and improved outcomes.

Physical therapists guide back pain patients through a series of exercises designed to strengthen and stretch their muscles and to help them improve posture and control their movements. Bianca Frogner of the University of Washington is a health economist and was the lead author of the study. She says, “We need to look for better ways to help patients manage the current pain that they have and prevent it from coming back in the future.” She adds that physical therapists “are well positioned to provide ideas on exercises, movement and ways of living to prevent the pain from getting worse — and hopefully from ever coming back once it’s gone.”

Physical therapy’s success lies in its educational approach. Patients who have been suffering from either acute or chronic neck or back pain are taught a number of tools and exercises that help them to manage their symptoms. By providing the patient with a series of exercises that they can use on their own, physical therapy invites the patient to play an active role in their own care. It also has the benefit of being in keeping with recommendations from the American Pain Society, which urges the use of heat, acupuncture, massage and physical therapy for lower back pain as a first line of defense.

At our lumbar spine specialty practice in New Jersey, that is the approach that we take. Contact us today to set up an appointment and learn how we can help you relieve your pain.

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