Could Physical Therapy Reduce Opioid Dependence?

In recent years, one of the biggest threats to emerge to public health has been opioid abuse. In 2019, more than 70,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses alone. Fortunately, there might be help for those at risk of opioid addiction.

Persistent Pain

According to a study published in the journal JAMA Network Open, physical therapy could help prevent opioid use for those living with persistent pain. A collaborative effort between the Stanford and Duke University Schools of Medicine, the study based its findings on outpatient and emergency room visits for shoulder, neck, knee and and low back pain. All of these ER patients were adults below the age of sixty-five.

The study authors then focused on subjects who had not filled an opioid prescription during the previous twelve months. In addition, those who had not visited a doctor shortly after their hospital trips were also excluded; this allowed the researchers to pinpoint those with more serious pain. Finally, the study also removed those who did not receive an opioid prescription in the 90 days following a pain diagnosis. These filters left the authors with just under 89,000 patients.

A Better Alternative?

Opioid use was significantly lower in adults who began physical therapy at the onset of their treatment process. Compared to other participants, these adults were 7 to 16 percent less likely to use opioids for pain relief in the months following their hospital trip. Likewise, physical therapy reduced opioid use among those who did use these medicines down to 5 to 10 percent.

The study’s lead author, Dr. Eric Sun, MD, PhD, contends those struggling with pain should at least consider physical therapy in lieu of opioids, if possible. “This isn’t a world where there are magic bullets. But many guidelines suggest that physical therapy is an important component of pain management, and there is little downside to trying it,” Sun stated in the publication Stanford Magazine. “The general consensus is that for musculoskeletal pain, opioids generally aren’t a long-term solution. Aside from all the other side effects, even if the medication is doing well for you, it will have less and less effect over time as your body builds up a tolerance.”

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