12th Jul 2016

Posted by Sara Zuboff on

How Physical Therapy Helps Improve Functional Capacity in Chronic Pain Patients

When dealing with chronic pain issues, complete cessation of pain is sometimes not possible. When that is the case, increasing function and improving quality of life for patients with chronic pain becomes the focus. A new article published in Pain Treatment and Research detailed findings from researchers from the Mayo Clinic Department of Pain Medicine in Jacksonville, Florida that found an interdisciplinary approach to chronic pain treatment was most effective. Patients were given treatment from a physical therapist, occupational therapist and a pain psychologist over a 5-day-a-week program that lasted three weeks. Results were astounding, with 39% improvement in functional capacity for patients across the board.

Physical Therapy Improves Functional Capacity for Chronic Pain Suffers

These findings further illustrate the need for physical therapists to take a varied and balanced approach when treating chronic pain.

Physical Therapy Modalities to Improve Functional Capacity in Chronic Pain Patients

Some of the modalities used in both physical and occupational therapy to great effect in the treating chronic pain are:

  1. Stretching: Whether using assistive stretching devices, such as straps or bands, or utilizing joint mobilizations and passive stretching techniques, improving flexibility is a main component of improving functional capacity. Since, flexibility is usually compromised in patients with chronic pain, it’s important to be able to improve flexibility but also address the soreness this may trigger.
  2. Heat & Ice Therapy: In order to avoid subsequent soreness from physical therapy, ice therapy in the form of cold compression can be used to reduce any swelling and with its analgesic effects lower any pain in the affected area.
  3. Balance: Chronic pain caused by arthritis or fibromyalgia can lead to balance or coordination issues. Using a balance platform along with balance balls, trainers or boards can help patients improve their coordination and balance deficits.
  4. Strength & Cardio: In order to increase functional capacity, it’s necessary for patients to develop endurance and strength. A study by Texas A&M found strength training with underwater treadmill workouts lead to building body mass more effectively. The underwater treadmill is great for chronic pain patients because without the painful impact of body-weight and joint impact, they are able to build their strength and endurance without fear of trigger a pain response.
  5. Biofeedback: Biofeedback (or biological feedback) uses an instrument that monitors a bodily response, such as muscle tension or skin temperature, as the person tries to modify their response. Biofeedback is able a non-drug technique that is able to achieve significant pain-reduction comparable to popular pain medications: propranolol (Inderal®) and amitriptyline (Elavil®).

While it’s true that in the case of chronic pain conditions, therapy, both physical and psychological, may not be able to stop the pain completely. However, quality of life is measured by one’s ability to participate successfully in daily activities and research shows that a multi-modal, balanced approach to pain management through the use of physical, occupational and psychological therapy are able to overwhelmingly increase the quality of life and functional capacity of our chronic pain patients. 

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