Physical Therapy: Pain Relief Without Drugs

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When it comes to prescription pain medication, the less you need, the better off you will be in the long run. But, managing a chronic, painful medical condition or recovering from a severe injury or surgery can hurt a lot. That’s where physical therapy for pain relief comes in.

Physical therapy can offer effective, long-term relief from discomfort — without the risk of addiction and other side effects.

If you’re skeptical about physical therapy or physiotherapy (PT), approach it with an open mind, says Dr. Marlon Lascelles Wong, a physical therapy orthopaedic specialist with the University of Miami Health System. “A wide range of conditions respond well to PT. Get involved in the process to ensure that a plan of care is developed that is specific to your needs.”

What is physical therapy?

Basically, PT is an exercise-based, non-pharmaceutical approach to bodily recovery and maintenance. It includes targeted stretching and strengthening exercises, massage therapy, manual therapy (joint and soft tissue mobilization), the application of hot and cold packs, and electrical stimulation, also called TENS therapies. 

Your doctor will base your style of physical therapy on your medical diagnosis and your specific needs, goals, and physical abilities. You will work closely with your physical therapist to track your progress.

Do I need physical therapy for pain relief?

The proper physical therapy can help anyone who has had:

  • Pre- and post- musculoskeletal or spinal surgery
  • Ligament, tendon, or muscle injuries
  • Brain or spinal cord injury (neuropathic pain)
  • Multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s disease
  • Nerve injuries
  • Complex Regional Pain Syndrome – a chronic condition that most often affects a person’s arm, leg, hand, or foot, typically after an injury

PT can address the movement patterns that contribute to your daily aches and ouches. In addition, it can help you safely increase your physical activity and improve your overall quality of life. 

How can I manage my pain without medication?

“Your physical therapist can provide you with education and guidance for additional at-home therapies and in-office treatments that can be administered in conjunction with PT to help relieve your pain,” Dr. Wong says.

Drug-free pain management treatments include:

  •  Acupuncture
  •  Breathing exercises
  •  Applying hot/cold packs
  •  Kinesio Taping (therapeutic elastic taping)
  • Massage therapy
  • Walking programs
  •  Cognitive-behavioral therapy
  •  Music therapy
  • Meditation

In addition, stress reduction and relaxation techniques are often used during PT treatments. The techniques provide short-term relief and improve exercise tolerance.

What else should you know about opioid-free pain management?

“It takes a few weeks to maximize the benefit of physical therapy,” Dr. Wong warns. “But, physical therapists utilize other interventions that provide quick and short-term relief from pain. When dosed appropriately, exercise can provide short-term pain relief, such as a runner’s high or the relaxation that accompanies yoga. 

Finding the right physical therapist provider for your specific needs is important. UHealth’s Physical Therapy department has residency-trained and board-certified specialists across multiple specialties. This includes orthopaedic, neurological, pelvic floor, hand specialist, cancer, vestibular, and aquatics. 

The UHealth Advanced Institute for Pain Management offers rehabilitation, neurology, radiology, and acupuncture services.


Dana Kantrowitz is a contributing writer for UMiami Health News.


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