Physical Therapy for Chronic Pain

Reviewed by Steven Richeimer, MD

You hear that you're supposed to stay active through your chronic pain and you think—'But how? Most activities make my pain worse! Sometimes, just getting through the day at work is agony, and now the doctor expects me to do extra activities after work?' This is where a physical therapist can help. He or she can give you a personalized strengthening and exercise plan, in addition to helping you learn how to manage your "daily life" pain.
Physical Therapy is Personalized
Chronic pain comes in many forms, so effectively treating your pain requires a plan just for you. The physical therapist will do a detailed physical evaluation to assess your chronic pain and its effect on your life. He or she will also ask about your treatment goals: do you want to learn how to better manage your pain at the office? Are you eager to start exercising but feel your pain is limiting that? What would be most helpful to learn in physical therapy?

Using that information, the physical therapist will develop a therapy plan for you.

Physical Therapy is Passive and Active
Physical therapy includes both passive and active treatments. Passive treatments help to relax you and your body. They're called passive because you don't have to actively participate.

Your physical therapy program may start with passive treatments, but the goal is to get into active treatments. These are therapeutic exercises that strengthen your body and help you deal with the chronic pain.

Passive physical therapy treatments include:

Passive therapies, such as those listed above, are generally done in conjunction with active therapies. In the active part of physical therapy, your therapist will teach you various exercises to improve your flexibility, strength, core stability, and range of motion (how easily your joints move).

Remember: Your physical therapy program is individualized, taking into consideration your health and history. Your exercises may not be suitable for another person with chronic pain, especially since chronic pain is such a subjective, personal experience.

Other Aspects of Physical Therapy
If needed, you will learn how to correct your posture and incorporate ergonomic principles into your daily activities. This is all part of the "self-care" or "self-treatment" aspect of physical therapy: through physical therapy, you learn good habits and principles that enable you to take better care of your body.

Your physical therapist may also suggest a personalized exercise program for you. As you can read in the Exercise and Chronic Pain article, staying active is an important part of chronic pain treatment. The physical therapist can help you figure out the best type of exercise for you.

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