Effectiveness of Physical Therapy vs. Pain Medications

When it comes to managing chronic pain or dealing with residual pain from an injury or surgery, our patients often find themselves with multiple options on the table. While working with a physician and following their recommendations is generally the best advice, we’d like to explore one of those options here: physical therapy vs pain medication.

The choice between physical therapy and medication depends on your need for immediate relief (medication) versus a holistic, long-term approach addressing underlying causes and building resilience (physical therapy). Consider factors such as the nature of your pain and health conditions to make an informed decision.

In this article, we’ll discuss the pros and cons of physical therapy and pain medication, and provide some pointers on which would be best for your individual situation. We’ll also discuss some of the potential pitfalls of each approach.

A Caveat: Follow your physician’s advice!

One note before we discuss any further: we do not and would not recommend that anyone discontinue or avoid following their doctor’s orders regarding medications. Your healthcare is between you and your physician, and we do not intend to sway anyone one direction or the other.

What follows is a brief discussion on some of the pros and cons of choosing physical therapy vs medications. As we noted in our article on physical therapy vs surgery, the correct answer can be “both,” when the situation and diagnosis calls for it!

Physical therapy vs medication: pros and cons

Though it’s easy to view this discussion as an either / or decision, it doesn’t have to be: there are upsides to both physical therapy and modern pain medications. That said, there can be some nasty downsides if not regulated properly.

The big differentiator between physical therapy and pain medication lies in the nature of pain relief they provide. Medications for pain offer immediate relief, temporarily suppressing pain signals.

Pain medications often offer quick and immediate relief, temporarily suppressing pain signals.

There are different types of pain medications

It’s important to note that there are numerous types of pain medication that exist, and they range dramatically in their potential side effects and risks. Basic, over-the-counter pain relievers like NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) tend to be very safe unless they are overused (check with your doctor).

On the other hand, prescription medications like muscle relaxers and opiates carry with them more dramatic risks, most notably the risk of overdose or dependency.

The immediate relief of pain medications

Opting to use pain medications can provide rapid and immediate relief, alleviating acute discomfort. For patients who suffer from chronic pain, or have extreme pain resulting from an injury, this may be the deciding factor. Medications are often convenient and accessible, offering a quick solution for those seeking to manage pain without engaging in more time-intensive therapies.

Additionally, they can be particularly beneficial for individuals with chronic conditions that may limit their ability to participate in restorative activities such as physical therapy treatments.

The downside of pain medications

Perhaps the most obvious downside of using medications to manage pain is that they don’t truly solve the underlying issues causing the pain. Though most physicians will recognize this shortcoming, it’s important to make sure that you’re participating in other treatment interventions to address the underlying dysfunction or injury. This could include physical therapy or occupational therapy, surgeries, or a number of other approaches.

Additionally, as most of us are aware, it’s important to be extremely mindful of potential side effects (drowsiness, nausea, etc.) and the risk of dependency associated with long-term medication use, as well as the risk of overdose if not used properly. Many medications, including opioids and muscle relaxants, carry with them a risk of developing a substance use disorder that can be very difficult to break.

Another potential risk is that once you’re through with your prescription, you’ll need to dispose of it properly. Josh Azevedo, the owner of one of the premiere teen substance abuse programs in Arizona and California, noted that a significant portion of the teens his substance abuse staff works with got their start by taking unused pain pills from a family member’s cabinet.

We’ve written elsewhere on the site about the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations on physical therapy vs opioid treatments, if you would like to read up on a potential solution to the opioid epidemic.

The long-term benefits of physical therapy

Physical therapy, on the other hand, takes a holistic approach to pain management by addressing the underlying causes of discomfort. Additionally, the cost of physical therapy is typically lower overall.

Through tailored exercises, stretches, and therapeutic interventions, physical therapists aim to restore mobility and correct imbalances. Physical therapy, over time, serves to improve the overall the functionality of the musculoskeletal systems, connective tissues, and related joints.

Physical therapy focuses on empowering individuals to actively participate in their healing process. By incorporating strength-building exercises and targeted movements, patients can build resilience, reducing the likelihood of recurring pain episodes.

The downsides of physical therapy

Though we tend to favor holistic approaches to pain management, there are some downsides to the physical therapy route. Most notably, physical therapy requires a commitment from the patient to schedule and keep appointments and complete a daily home exercise program, often for 2-3 months in a row.

Physical therapy works extremely well for patients who demonstrate high levels of adherence to their treatment plan, and patients who struggle with this often say that physical therapy doesn’t work for them.

Making an informed decision

Ultimately, the choice between physical therapy and pain medication depends on various factors, including the type and severity of the pain, the specific condition being treated, other individual health conditions, and personal preferences.

In many cases, a combination of both approaches can be the most effective strategy, providing immediate relief while addressing the root causes of pain through physical therapy.

Conclusion

Though medication can be extremely useful in a therapeutic process for a patient who is unable to perform restorative exercises or daily life tasks without pain, it’s likely more cost-effective and efficient in the long run to seek physical therapy if possible.

Unlike the temporary relief offered by pain medications, the benefits of physical therapy are enduring, and the knowledge you gain by performing exercises at home can stay with you for a lifetime. By promoting lifestyle changes and self-management techniques, physical therapy equips individuals with the tools to maintain a healthier, pain-free life in the long run.

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