FRIDAY, Dec. 14, 2018 (HealthDay News) — People who get prompt physical therapy for pain in the knee, shoulder or lower back may have less need for opioid painkillers, new research suggests.
The study, of nearly 89,000 U.S. patients, found that people given physical therapy for their pain were 7 percent to 16 percent less likely to fill a prescription for an opioid.
The researchers said the findings suggest that early physical therapy is one way to reduce Americans’ use of the risky, potentially addictive painkillers.
“For people dealing with these types of musculoskeletal pain, it may really be worth considering physical therapy — and suggesting that your health care provider give you a referral,” said lead researcher Dr. Eric Sun. He is an assistant professor of anesthesiology, perioperative and pain medicine at Stanford University.
Dr. Houman Danesh, a pain management specialist who was not involved in the study, agreed.
“This study shows how important physical therapy can be,” said Danesh, who directs the division of integrative pain management at Mount Sinai Hospital, in New York City.
Physical therapy does require a much bigger investment than taking pain medication — and, he said, patients may have to travel to find a therapist who is the best fit for them.
“Physical therapy is highly variable,” Danesh said. “Not all physical therapists are equal — just like not all doctors are.”
But the effort can be worth it, according to Danesh, because unlike painkillers, physical therapy can help people get at the root of their pain — such as imbalances in muscle strength.
“You can take an opioid for a month, but if you don’t get at the underlying issue [for the pain], you’ll go back to where you started,” he explained.
The findings, published online Dec. 14 in JAMA Network Open, come amid a growing national opioid epidemic. While many people who abuse opioids are hooked on illegal versions — like heroin and illicitly manufactured fentanyl — prescription opioid abuse remains a major concern.
Medical guidelines, from groups like the American College of Physicians, now urge doctors to first offer non-drug options for muscle and joint pain. Opioids, such as Vicodin and OxyContin, should be reserved as a last resort.