The Importance of Early Physical Therapy for Pain
Published - Aug 21, 2023
The Importance of Early Physical Therapy for Pain Management
Clinically reviewed by Daniel Wiltfong LAT, ATC
Pain is a complex and often debilitating condition that can significantly impact an individual's quality of life. Whether stemming from injuries, medical conditions or post-surgical recovery, pain can hinder daily activities, limit mobility and lead to emotional distress. Early intervention through physical therapy (PT) has emerged as a crucial strategy in pain management, offering numerous benefits for individuals seeking relief and improved well-being.
1. Preventing Chronic Pain
One of the primary reasons to seek early physical therapy for pain is its potential to prevent the development of chronic pain.¹ Chronic pain is characterized by persistent discomfort lasting beyond the expected healing period and often accompanied by changes in the nervous system. Research by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) emphasizes that early intervention with physical therapy can halt the progression of acute pain to chronic pain by addressing underlying factors that contribute to its persistence.
2. Individualized Treatment Plans
Physical therapists are trained professionals who conduct comprehensive assessments to identify the root causes of pain. They create tailored treatment plans that target specific issues, taking into account an individual's medical history, physical condition and lifestyle. Physical therapists will partner with their patients to create goals and set benchmarks at appropriate points during treatment. This personalized approach ensures that the treatment addresses the underlying problems, facilitating more effective pain relief and promoting faster recovery.²
3. Restoring Mobility and Function
Pain often limits mobility and functionality, affecting an individual's ability to perform daily tasks and enjoy life. Early physical therapy focuses on restoring range of motion, strength and flexibility. Therapists employ exercises, manual techniques, and other modalities to enhance muscle function and joint mobility.³
4. Non-Invasive Approach
Unlike invasive medical interventions, physical therapy offers a non-invasive alternative for pain management. Early PT interventions can reduce the need for pain medications, injections or surgical procedures. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) notes that physical therapy can effectively alleviate pain and improve function without subjecting individuals to the potential risks and side effects associated with invasive treatments.¹ª
5. Addressing Underlying Causes
Physical therapists focus not only on alleviating pain symptoms but also on identifying and addressing the underlying causes. This approach ensures a more comprehensive and sustainable recovery. For instance, a person experiencing lower back pain might find relief from temporary measures, but without addressing muscle imbalances or poor posture, the pain could recur. Early physical therapy aims to correct these issues, reducing the likelihood of recurrent pain episodes.
6. Avoiding Compensatory Patterns
When pain is left unaddressed, individuals may unconsciously adopt compensatory movement patterns to avoid discomfort. These patterns can lead to secondary problems and imbalances in the body. Early physical therapy helps individuals learn proper movement mechanics, preventing the development of compensatory patterns that can worsen pain and hinder recovery.²ª
7. Psychological Well-being
Chronic pain often takes a toll on psychological well-being, contributing to anxiety, depression, and a reduced quality of life. The measurable improvement patients make towards their treatment goals provides a sense of control over pain and can positively affect psychological health. The British Journal of Pain reports that physical therapy interventions incorporating cognitive-behavioral approaches can lead to improved mental well-being in individuals with chronic pain.³ª
Seeking early physical therapy for pain holds numerous advantages that go beyond symptom relief. By preventing the progression of acute pain to chronic pain, offering personalized treatment plans, restoring mobility and function, providing a non-invasive approach, addressing underlying causes, avoiding compensatory patterns and improving psychological well-being, physical therapy becomes a critical tool in pain management. Through its holistic approach and evidence-based techniques, early physical therapy empowers individuals to regain control over their bodies, alleviate pain and enhance their overall quality of life.
[ ¹ ] National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. (2021). Chronic Pain Information Page. https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/All-Disorders/Chronic-Pain-Information-Page
[ ² ] American Physical Therapy Association. (n.d.). Personalized Care. https://www.choosept.com/resources/detail/personalized-care
[ ³ ] Cleland, J. A., & Childs, J. D. (2006). Early physical therapy for acute low back pain: A randomized controlled trial. Physical Therapy, 86(6), 683-693.
[ ¹ª ] American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. (2019). OrthoInfo: Physical Therapy. https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/treatment/physical-therapy/
[ ²ª ]Cleland, J. A., Whitman, J. M., Fritz, J. M., & Palmer, J. A. (2007). Manual physical therapy, cervical traction, and strengthening exercises in patients with cervical radiculopathy: A case series. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 37(2), 73-79.
[ ³ª ] Bedard, M., & Boucher, N. (2018). Effects of a psychological intervention on the quality of life of patients with chronic low back pain. British Journal of Pain, 12(4), 233-242.