Opioid Medication Masks the Pain; Physical Therapy Treats it

By: Dan Durham, Physical Therapist/Owner

Pain is not easy to live with, but neither is addiction. Unfortunately, our society has become heavily reliant on masking the pain with opioid medication rather than treating it. To say this has contributed greatly to the current heroin epidemic in this country would be an understatement.

Drug overdose claims more American lives annually than motor vehicle accidents – and most of those overdoses are from prescription medication. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more people died from drug overdoses in 2014 than any other year. From 2000 to 2014, nearly half a million people died from a drug overdose, with 78 Americans dying daily from an opioid overdose.

In 2012, health care providers wrote 259 million prescriptions for opioid pain meds, which the federal government reports is enough for every American adult to have a bottle of pills. Common prescribed pain meds including hydrocodone, oxycodone, morphine, and methadone are all opioids; a class of drugs that includes heroin.

About three out of four heroin users cite prescription opioid abuse before using heroin. Factor in the increased availability, lower price, and increased purity of the narcotic, and heroin-related deaths have more than tripled between 2010 and 2014, with 10,574 such deaths in 2014.

What is being done?

Last year, the Obama Administration announced a public-private partnership to combat heroin use and prescription drug abuse. The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) is one of several organizations that are joining the White House in promoting safe alternatives to managing pain through medication.

Among those alternatives is using physical therapy to treat the pain rather than mask it. As part of its Move Forward™ campaign, the APTA recommends patients should choose physical therapy when:

  • The risks of opioid use outweigh the benefits: Common side effects include depression, overdose, addiction, and withdrawal symptoms when use is stopped.
  • Patients don’t want to just mask the pain: While opioids reduce the sensation of pain by interrupting pain signals to the brain, physical therapy treats the pain through movement, helping patients regain mobility.
  • Opioids aren’t necessary to treat the pain: Pain or loss of mobility can be related to low back pain, hip or knee osteoarthritis, or fibromyalgia.
  • Opioids are prescribed for pain: Even when prescribed, the CDC recommends the “lowest effective dosage,” and to combine opioid use with non-opioid therapies, like physical therapy.
  • Pain lasts 90 days: This is considered chronic pain, and could lead to continued use of opioids. CDC guidelines state that non-opioid therapies are preferred for chronic pain, and that clinicians should consider opioid therapy only if the benefits outweigh the risks.

If you or a loved one is prescribed opioids for any kind of pain, consult with a physical therapist about non-opioid treatments.