Got Pain? A Visit to a Physical Therapist Might Be Just What You Need

Pain is like a warning system that alerts our bodies to a problem. If we cut our finger on a knife or stick our hand on a hot stove, an electrical signal zips through our nervous system, firing up the pain processors in our brain. The pain we feel lets us know that we’re hurt, and it makes us react to prevent further injury. When we remove the stimulus, or once the injury heals, the pain goes away.

Chronic pain is different. With chronic pain—defined as any pain that lasts longer than three months—our pain sensors continue to fire even when there’s no obvious injury, illness, or external stimulus. Sometimes illness or injury is the initial trigger for chronic pain, but not always. Other possible sources of chronic pain include back problems, migraines, arthritis, nerve damage, fibromyalgia, or even infection.

Chronic pain can present itself as a shooting pain, throbbing, burning, stinging, a dull ache, or even soreness or stiffness.

Approaches to treatment can vary widely depending on the diagnosis (if the cause of the problem can even be diagnosed). Invasive surgical procedures are best limited to the last resort, after all other potential remedies have been tried. Likewise, while some medicines may be helpful for certain conditions, for chronic pain it is best to avoid opioid drugs, which are highly addictive but only mask the pain without addressing its cause.

The good news is that for many people, chronic pain can be eliminated or at least effectively managed with treatment by a licensed physical therapist. Often a physical therapist is able to treat more than just the pain by getting at the source of the problem. A physical therapist can identify the weak or stiff areas in your body and guide you through appropriate exercises to restore balance, strength, and mobility. The result is reduced stress and better pain relief.

During your visit to a physical therapist, your session could include:

  • Low-impact aerobic warm-up (such as walking or a stationary bicycle)
  • Strengthening exercises (using machines, resistance tubing or bands, or your own body weight)
  • Stretching

Your physical therapist will also likely prescribe certain exercises for you to continue at home. Some exercises may feel uncomfortable at first, but that’s normal when you begin to strengthen underutilized muscles.

There are also a number of other possible treatment methods your physical therapist might offer including massage, ultrasound, and electrical nerve stimulation. Sometimes distraction of a joint is used for pain relief before exercise.

There was a time not long ago when rest was often prescribed for a wide variety of injuries. But research has shown that too much inactivity weakens supporting muscles, prolongs injury, and can even make things worse. Weakened muscles can be a major contributing cause to chronic pain. Strong, healthy muscles, on the other hand, provide protection and support to bones and joints.

If chronic pain is a problem, an exercise program designed for you by a trained physical therapist might be the most effective and simplest solution. The bottom line is that physical therapy is safe, it won’t hurt, and it can lead to increased function and dramatic reduction of pain.