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Chronic Pain, Wellness, and Physical Therapy

Pain affects more Americans than heart disease, diabetes, and cancer combined. The International Association of Pain describes pain as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage.” Not all pain is bad pain. Pain does have a protective function, for example, the response to lift your hand from the hot burner on the stove. However, when pain is present for reasons other than a protective mechanism it can cause chronic problems. Pain is often a constant, daily battle for many individuals. It can become limiting and lead to increased instances of depression and anxiety.

There are 2 categories of pain, acute pain and chronic pain. Acute pain is described as pain that has lasted for two weeks to three months and is usually associated with tissue damage. Chronic pain is when the acute injury has healed and you continue to experience pain past the expected recovery time. Chronic pain is a condition that currently has a variety of treatments ranging from pain management to medication; it affects 76.2 million people in the U.S. (National Center for Health Statistics).

At times you may have heard health care workers describe chronic pain as being “all in your head.” This makes people feel as if their pain is “not real” or “made up”, but they are experiencing actual pain as noted by the connection between the brain and the body. The physiological process of pain does occur in our brain. It is a subconscious experience in which the brain is trying to protect you from injury or in the case of chronic pain, over protect you. Pain is multifaceted and therefore many factors can influence pain. These can include: anxiety, depression, social and environmental factors, trauma, sensory and cognitive experiences and more.

Physical therapy and many other health care disciplines have begun to look at chronic pain differently. If we attempt to treat the physical side of the pain without addressing the other influencing factors, we will only be so successful in providing individuals in chronic pain with relief. There is currently a growth in the use of opioids for pain treatment, described often as “The Opioid Epidemic.” Physical therapy is a safe and effective alternative to opioids for long-term pain management and prevention. As physical therapists, we want to provide our patients with the tools to 1) understand their pain, 2) get control of their pain, 3) address the causes of the pain, and 4) promote self-care and management techniques to individuals so that they can implement these coping and recovery mechanisms into their daily lives.

Education is the key to the success of coping with chronic pain! As health care professionals, we need to instruct our patients on improving their own self-care and management techniques. This includes using techniques to assist in their individualized recovery and coping mechanisms. These self-management techniques include nutrition, exercise, mind body skills and more. Mind Body skills can be described simply as “healing from the inside out” and can be performed by physical therapists. This is accomplished by tapping into the body’s natural healing responses to improve the minds ability to affect the body systems and functions. These techniques are researched based and aimed to regulate the autonomic nervous system and include guided imagery, biofeedback, meditation, breathing, and movement (ex. tai chi and/or yoga). Many of these techniques have been shown to be effective when treating: chronic pain, fibromyalgia, headaches, pelvic floor dysfunction, pre/post operative diagnosis, stroke, cardiovascular issues, dizziness, and more.

Don’t let pain continue to debilitate and control you, talk to your local physician, pain management doctor, physical therapist, and/or other health professional today and start down a road to recovery. We can all work together to help you get control of the pain that is affecting your life!

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