Addressing chronic pain with physical therapy

Physical therapy and exercise can help you manage pain and stay active.

Various exercise equipment on a table, such as a running shoe and a pyramid of dumbbells.
Photo: Steve Buissinne/Pixabay.

When living with pain from an injury, trauma or medical condition, being physically active and managing daily tasks can pose challenges. Regaining mobility, strength and flexibility can help you engage more easily with daily tasks. Physical activity through physical therapy can help reduce and manage chronic pain. Physical therapy is also a safe and effective choice to strengthen and improve a specific area of the body for long-term use, as well as minimize the need for pain management medications, such as prescription opioids.

When considering physical therapy, ask your health care provider or a community health agency for a licensed physical therapist recommendation and referral. A physical therapist identifies and provides specific help to treat the areas of your body experiencing pain or needing rehabilitation. Individual physical therapy sessions with a trained therapist assist with care and personalized exercises to diagnose, strengthen and prevent further injury.

During the first session, the therapist may discuss the number of sessions you need based on the evaluation and whether you have healthcare coverage. Together, you can identify manageable goals, develop a plan and evaluate your progress. For many patients, the therapist may provide a variety of at-home exercises to work on. To prepare for a visit with a physical therapist, review a list of tips and expectations from the American Physical Therapy Association.

Common Physical Therapy Goals and Benefits

  • Reducing, managing or minimizing pain: Physical therapy provides a safer alternative to minimize more complex treatment such as surgery, or the use of prescription opioids.
  • Improving mobility and flexibility: Specific stretches and exercises can help prevent or reduce the impact of stiffness or injuries. Therapy can also minimize the severity of other conditions, such as osteoarthritis and back pain.
  • Enhancing strength and recovery: If you’ve experienced an injury, surgery or a stroke, you can work towards recovery through specific exercises that help your condition. 
  • Increased balance and preventing falls: Gentle strength and flexibility exercises help decrease the chances of falling and help older adults stay independent.
  • Improved overall health and fitness levels: Increasing movement helps to strengthen our heart and other muscles. Exercising helps you prevent or manage disease, reach and maintain a healthy weight, and experience a variety of other physical and mental health benefits.

In addition to physical therapy, being active and maintaining a healthy lifestyle will help you navigate chronic pain. Physical activity helps manage symptoms and prevent complications of chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, lung disease and other health conditions. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends adults stay active for at least 150 minutes per week and include two days of muscle-strengthening activities. Older adults (65 years and older) should also include activities to enhance balance for preventing falls.

To reach 150 minutes of activity, many adults may try exercising 30 minutes a day, five days a week. Talk with your healthcare provider to determine appropriate exercise activities and whether physical therapy can help manage your chronic pain condition. Create a plan to start slow and gradually increase the time and intensity of your activity. Always check with your health care provider if you have any concerns with starting a physical activity program.

To learn additional strategies for managing chronic pain, such as planning and pacing activities and developing a plan for exercise, consider participating in Michigan State University Extension’s six-week online Chronic Pain Personal Action Towards Health (PATH) program. With support from peers also living with chronic pain, participants learn valuable self-management tools and skills, such as communication with healthcare providers and family, healthy eating and managing difficult emotions.

MSU Extension also offers a variety of programs to learn more about managing chronic pain and staying active:

To find the right program for you, visit the MSU Extension's virtual events calendar or contact your local Extension office.

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