Ease Chronic Pain with Physical Therapy

May 02, 2023

Couple trekking in the forest together

Pain can be a good thing. A prickly feeling, tingle, sting, burning sensation or ache can warn you of danger or an injury to protect you from further harm. It may also result from surgery or a medical procedure. This kind of pain is called acute pain, and it resolves as the injury or condition heals.

But chronic pain is another kind of pain entirely, one that can be debilitating and take over your life. It may come and go or be persistent. Chronic pain may keep you from enjoying your usual activities or social life or may restrict your ability to work.

What is chronic pain?

Chronic pain is defined as pain that lasts more than three to six months and is outside the normal scope of healing. Remarkably, more than 20% of the U.S. population suffers from chronic pain.[1] Treatment with prescription drugs has dramatically increased in recent decades, but pharmaceuticals offer only temporary relief and can have significant side effects, including addiction.[2] This is why physical therapy is often recommended as a chronic pain treatment.

What causes chronic pain?

Pain begins in the receptor nerve cells beneath your skin and in your organs. When you have an illness or injury, these receptor cells send messages through the nerves to the spinal cord and then to your brain, which makes you feel pain in that part of the body. [3] In the case of chronic pain, your nervous system is stuck on high alert, and your body keeps receiving pain signals from your brain. In many cases of chronic pain, your brain and nervous system are the main contributors. [1]

Chronic pain may have an apparent cause, like a traumatic injury or a long-lasting illness, such as arthritis or cancer. Or it may have no clear cause, which physicians call psychogenic or psychosomatic pain. Chronic pain can also be triggered by stress, anxiety or depression, which creates a feedback loop that causes more stress, anxiety or depression. This, in turn, causes even greater discomfort emotionally and physically. Illnesses and injuries can also cause changes in your body that make you more sensitive to pain long after the injury or illness has resolved – even an ankle sprain or a brief infection can cause chronic pain.

Types of chronic pain

Chronic pain can occur anywhere in the body, but the most common types are:

  • Headaches (including migraines)
  • Back pain
  • Neck pain
  • Cancer pain near a tumor
  • Arthritis or joint pain
  • Pain from nerve damage
  • Testicular pain (orchialgia)
  • Pain in scar tissue
  • Body-wide muscle pain (such as with fibromyalgia)

How do I get started?

If you suffer with chronic pain, see your physician for an evaluation, or a physiatrist at Good Shepherd Rehabilitation. After they assess your condition, they can make a referral to Good Shepherd’s Physical Therapy department to begin your treatment.

How physical therapy helps chronic pain

Chronic pain is a complex condition strongly influenced by your expectations, mood, outlook, sleep and past experience. These influences can affect your perception of your pain and the therapies recommended to reduce it. While physical therapy may be hard to imagine doing when your entire body aches, it can significantly reduce the sensitivity of your nervous system, thereby reducing your chronic pain. This, in turn, reduces the need for pain management medications, such as opioids.

To desensitize your nervous system, cardiovascular exercise is key. Elevating your heart rate and breathing stimulates bloodflow throughout your body, which nourishes damaged tissue. Your physical therapist will recommend a type of cardiovascular exercise based on your physical condition, your pain and your flexibility.

Physical therapy for chronic pain at Good Shepherd Rehabilitation may include:

  • Low-impact aerobics. This may include walking or running on a treadmill, swimming, elliptical exercises, or using a rowing machine or stationary bike.
  • Exercise and stretching to relieve your pain. Specific movements and gentle stretches target areas where you have pain. These exercises are designed to make you stronger and more flexible, which will help reduce your pain.
  • Massage for injured areas. Touching an area causing pain may be uncomfortable, but your physical therapist will take care that it’s helpful to you. Massage helps to stimulate bloodflow in the soft tissues and can be very therapeutic.

Because each person’s chronic pain is different and affects different points in their body, each person’s physical therapy plan is unique. When designing your treatment plan, your physiatrists and physical therapists at Good Shepherd Rehabilitation will consider the source of your pain (if identifiable), your emotional health, ability to move, medical history, goals and physical condition. Before starting, they will perform tests to understand your range of motion, balance, strength, posture and endurance.

If you’re experiencing chronic pain, make an appointment with our chronic pain specialists. Visit our chronic pain page or call 1-888-44-REHAB (73422).


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