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The Role of Physical Therapy in Pain Management

Date: July 15, 2023

What is the role of physical therapy in pain management? Chronic pain is a prevalent issue affecting the quality of life of millions worldwide. While pharmaceutical solutions have traditionally dominated pain management strategies, they often have risks and side effects. 

As a result, there's a growing recognition of the need for a more holistic approach. Physical therapy stands out as an essential part of this, offering a non-pharmacological, patient-centric option to alleviate symptoms and address the root causes of pain. 

This article explores the critical role of physical therapy in effective pain management, highlighting its techniques, benefits, and the active role patients play in their journey toward pain relief.

Understanding Pain and Physical Therapy

Pain is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon. According to the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP), pain is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage. 

It's categorized broadly into acute and chronic types. 

  • Acute pain- often resulting from injury or surgery, is usually temporary and subsides once the underlying issue heals. 
  • Chronic pain- persists for more than three months, even beyond the healing of the initial injury or illness. 

This can significantly impact a person's quality of life, contributing to physical discomfort, sleep disturbances, anxiety, depression, and decreased mobility.

Physical therapy plays a crucial role in the management of both acute and chronic pain. Physical therapists employ a variety of techniques to help manage pain, restore function, improve mobility, and enhance overall quality of life.

Physical therapy's approach to pain management is patient-centric and non-pharmacological. It involves an in-depth assessment to identify the root causes of the patient's pain and tailor a treatment plan specific to their needs. 

Treatment techniques may involve:

  • Exercises to build strength, flexibility, and endurance.
  • Manual therapy to improve the function of tissues and joints.
  • Education on posture, body mechanics, and self-management strategies.

Physical therapy is a proven effective treatment for various types of pain, including musculoskeletal pain like back and neck pain, joint pain from arthritis, neuropathic pain, and pain associated with conditions like fibromyalgia. In essence, physical therapy offers a holistic and beneficial alternative or complement to traditional pain management strategies, empowering patients to take an active role in their pain management journey.

The Role of Physical Therapy in Acute Pain Management

Acute pain is typically a direct result of a specific injury, surgery, or illness and lasts a relatively short time. Despite its transitory nature, acute pain demands swift attention and management to prevent its progression to chronic pain and to facilitate optimal healing. 

Physical therapy plays an instrumental role in this process, utilizing a myriad of strategies to alleviate acute pain and expedite recovery.


The role of a physical therapist begins with a comprehensive assessment, which typically involves evaluating the patient's medical history, physical condition, pain level, mobility, strength, and functional capacity. This evaluation helps the therapist develop a personalized treatment plan targeting the patient's specific needs and goals.

Pain Reduction Strategies

Physical therapists employ various non-pharmacological interventions to mitigate acute pain. These may include:

  • Thermal Modalities 
  • Manual Therapy
  • Electrotherapy
illustration showing pain reduction strategies and the role of physical therapy in pain management

Exercise and Movement

Targeted exercise is a crucial aspect of physical therapy for acute pain. The therapist may recommend specific exercises to strengthen muscles, enhance flexibility, and promote mobility. Depending on the nature and location of the injury, these could include range-of-motion exercises, stretching, strengthening exercises, or low-impact aerobic conditioning. 

These exercises help manage pain and prevent secondary immobility complications, such as muscle weakness and stiffness.

Education and Self-management

Physical therapists play a crucial role in educating patients about their condition, the healing process, and how to manage their pain independently. They offer guidance on safe ways to carry out daily activities and exercises to perform at home, which can accelerate recovery. 

They may also teach pain-relief strategies like deep breathing and relaxation exercises. This empowerment and involvement in their treatment can have positive psychological effects, fostering confidence, resilience, and a sense of control over their condition.

Involvement in the Multidisciplinary Team

Often, acute pain management involves a multidisciplinary team, including doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals. Physical therapists contribute significantly to this team, offering a unique functional mobility and recovery perspective. They collaborate with the rest of the team, ensuring that the patient's pain management plan is cohesive, comprehensive, and efficient.

Physical therapy is integral to acute pain management by promoting healing, restoring function, and empowering patients. Its tailored, non-invasive, and multifaceted approach addresses patients' individual needs, guiding them safely and swiftly through their recovery journey.

The Role of Physical Therapy in Chronic Pain Management

Physical therapy plays a crucial role in chronic pain management, providing non-pharmacological, functional, and personalized solutions.

illustration showing the role of physical therapy in pain management - chronic pain

Assessment and Personalized Treatment Plan

The physical therapy process starts with an exhaustive assessment of individuals suffering from chronic pain. Physical therapists consider the patient's medical history, physical condition, pain level, mobility, functional capacity, and psychosocial factors. 

This evaluation informs the development of a personalized treatment plan that considers the individual's needs, goals, and lifestyle.

Movement Therapy and Exercise

Physical therapists employ movement therapy and a variety of exercises to manage chronic pain. They guide patients in using proper body mechanics and posture, promote strengthening and flexibility exercises, and employ low-impact activities to enhance physical endurance. 

These exercises can alleviate pain, improve function, reduce disability, and improve the individual's overall quality of life.

Manual Therapy

Manual therapy involves the application of hands-on techniques designed to modulate pain, improve range of motion, and induce relaxation. Techniques include soft tissue work (like massage), joint mobilization, and manual lymphatic drainage. 

These techniques can alleviate chronic pain by reducing muscle tension, improving circulation, and enhancing joint flexibility.

Pain Education

One crucial aspect of physical therapy in managing chronic pain is pain education. Therapists educate patients about the nature and physiology of their pain, debunking myths and misconceptions. This understanding can help reduce fear and anxiety associated with chronic pain, leading to improved self-management and reduced perceived pain intensity.

Cognitive Behavioral Strategies

Physical therapists often employ cognitive-behavioral strategies in managing chronic pain. This includes helping patients identify and challenge unhelpful thoughts and beliefs about pain, promoting adaptive coping strategies, and teaching relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation.

Multidisciplinary Approach

Chronic pain management often requires a multidisciplinary approach involving a team of healthcare professionals. As part of this team, physical therapists bring unique expertise in movement and function. 

They work closely with other professionals to ensure a cohesive and comprehensive pain management plan that addresses chronic pain's physical and psychological aspects.

Physical therapists play a vital role in chronic pain management by incorporating techniques that address chronic pain's physical and psychological aspects. They guide patients on a journey to reduce pain, improve mobility, regain function, and ultimately enhance their quality of life. 

Physical therapy offers a sustainable, personalized, and holistic approach to chronic pain, making it a valuable asset in comprehensive chronic pain management.

Evidence for the Effectiveness of Physical Therapy for Pain Management

The effectiveness of physical therapy in managing pain is well-documented in scientific literature. According to a 2017 Journal of Pain Research review, physical therapy and exercise can reduce pain and improve physical function in people with chronic pain conditions. 

Similarly, a 2019 American Journal of Sports Medicine study found that physical therapy effectively reduced pain and improved function in athletes with acute sports injuries.

It's important to note that the effectiveness of physical therapy can vary based on factors such as the nature and cause of the pain, the specific techniques used, the skills and experience of the physical therapist, and the patient’s participation and commitment to the treatment plan.


Physical therapy plays a crucial role in pain management. Its importance has been underscored in recent years by the rising tide of the opioid crisis, the increasing prevalence of chronic pain conditions, and a growing body of evidence supporting its efficacy. 

Physical therapy offers a non-invasive, drug-free, and patient-centered approach that alleviates pain and improves physical function and quality of life. Addressing the root causes of pain presents a sustainable solution that empowers patients to actively control their health and well-being.

About Dr. Sean Ormond
Dr. Sean Ormond in black medical uniform and black fog background
Dr. Sean Ormond is dual board-certified in Anesthesiology and Interventional Pain Management. He completed his anesthesia residency at Case Western University in Cleveland, Ohio where he served as Chief Resident, followed by an interventional pain management fellowship at Rush University in Chicago, IL. Following fellowship, Dr. Ormond moved to Phoenix and has been practicing in the Valley for a few years before deciding to start his own practice.