The Benefits of Physical Therapy for Chronic Pain

Topics: Opioids

Employees can suffer from chronic pain for a variety of reasons following an accident or injury in the workplace. A slip and fall on a wet floor or improperly lifting heavy objects can lead to ongoing lower back pain. The repeated motions an assembly line worker or food prep worker engages in on a daily basis can cause cumulative stress injuries like joint pain or carpal tunnel syndrome. Chronic pain can also be caused by workplace accidents involving motor vehicles, falling objects, burns and more.

The effects of this chronic pain can greatly affect a worker’s quality of life, as it often results in sleeplessness, irritability and even depression. Studies show that the more someone focuses on their pain, the worse it seems to become. Adding in psychological, emotional and social factors can further intensify one’s perception of chronic pain.

What is Physical Therapy?

The definition of physical therapy is “the treatment of disease, injury or deformity by physical methods such as massage, heat treatment and exercise rather than by drugs or surgery.” Workers who are injured on the job need an effective way to get back to their daily duties. Physical therapy can help restore their ability to lift, climb, carry and other movements needed to complete regular tasks. Physical therapy can also be beneficial to injured workers in helping them better manage their pain, while also educating them on how to prevent future injuries.

Physical Therapy vs. Opioids for Pain Management

Fifty million Americans suffer from chronic pain, a number that represents just over 20% of the U.S. population. Prescription medications, mainly opioids, have been the drug of choice for relief from chronic pain for almost 20 years. It was believed initially that opioids were not addictive, leading to the over-prescription of these medications following surgery or injury – or for relief from chronic pain.

“Many workplace injuries lead to chronic pain and the ongoing use of opioids to mask that pain. Chronic use of opioids may lead to polypharmacy to treat the many side effects associated with opioid use, potentially additional comorbidities, depression, anxiety and of course the risk of overdose,” cautions Dr. Melissa Burke, Head of AmTrust’s Managed Care and Clinical.

Due to the ever-growing and ongoing opioid epidemic, in March of 2016 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released opioid prescription guidelines which took a clear stance: opioids, while appropriate in certain cases such as treatment for cancer or palliative care, should not be the first option for managing chronic pain.

Pain lasting for 90 days is considered chronic. The guidelines specified by the CDC state that non-opioid treatments are preferred for this type of pain, like using NSAIDs, doing exercise like yoga or massage therapy.

One of the safer alternatives to opioids includes physical therapy. Physical therapists are able to alleviate the debilitating pain many injured workers endure through movement, hands-on care and patient education. Opioids, on the other hand, work by reducing the sensation of pain by activating opioid receptors on nerve cells, interrupting pain signals to the brain and thus masking the pain. Physical therapy can actually treat and reduce the pain while also improving mobility and quality of life.

Physical Therapy and Workers’ Compensation

Doctors, pharmacists and even politicians have all played a role in the ongoing opioid crisis, but industry experts believe the amount of workers’ compensation claims and injuries also have contributed. The National Council of Compensation Insurance (NCCI) shows that injured workers who were issued at least one opioid prescription in 2016 received three times as many opioid prescriptions as the U.S. opioid prescribing rate.

A recent article from Risk and Insurance detailed some of the misconceptions regarding utilizing physical therapy for injured workers. It can be common for physical therapy as a treatment plan to be over-utilized, leading to elevated workers’ compensation costs. It’s important for workers’ comp carriers to remember that the goal of treating a worker’s chronic pain is to help restore function so they can get back to work sooner.

Communication between all parties – the physician, physical therapist, patient and the insurer – can help ensure the injured worker is receiving the proper treatment for his or her specific pain. Physical therapy is successful when patients are engaged early, playing an active role in their treatment and recovery. This can also help lessen their chronic pain, but also reduce the possibility of an additional injury, the need for surgery and mitigate rising claim costs.

Workers’ Compensation Coverage from AmTrust Financial

AmTrust Financial is a leader in workers’ compensation, offering a variety of products to meet the needs of our small business insureds. For more information about our small business insurance solutions, please contact us today.

This material is for informational purposes only and is not legal or business advice. Neither AmTrust Financial Services, Inc. nor any of its subsidiaries or affiliates represents or warrants that the information contained herein is appropriate or suitable for any specific business or legal purpose. Readers seeking resolution of specific questions should consult their business and/or legal advisors. Coverages may vary by location. Contact your local RSM for more information.

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