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Large Scale Study Shows Reduction in Opioid Use with Early Physical Therapy

Millions of Americans are using opioids to manage their pain. With all of the negative side-effects, including addiction, over-dose and death, reducing the need for these medications and finding alternatives have become a huge topic of discussion and research. The Center for Disease Control has issued guidelines for helping reduce the use of opioids and has recommended the use of non-drug interventions, such as physical therapy.

A study published in 2018 demonstrated just how much physical therapy could impact the opioid epidemic. The researchers looked at 88,985 patients who visited a health care provider for either back, knee, shoulder or neck pain. They then tracked their use of prescription medications and whether or not they received physical therapy.

They found that patients who had early physical therapy treatment were associated with a reduced risk of opioid use. If they did take prescription medications, those that had early physical therapy were associated with taking significantly less pills for back, shoulder and knee pain. They also found a reduction in chronic opioid use with people that had early physical therapy. In fact, there was a 66% reduction in knee pain and a 33% reduction for lower back pain.

This is not the first study to show a link between early physical therapy and decreased opioid use. A study published in Health Services Research in 2018 studied the link between early physical therapy and opioid prescriptions and health care utilization for patients with low back pain. They found that patients who saw a physical therapist had an 89.4% lower probability of having an opioid prescription in addition to also having decreased out-of-pocket costs.

As more regulations on opioids continue to come and more evidence is discovered about the harmful side effects of these medications, providers and patients will need alternative treatments to help manage their pain. Physical therapy continues to demonstrate its usefulness in decreasing overall health care costs as well as reducing the use of opioid medications.

If you or someone you love struggles with pain and would prefer a non-drug solution, contact your physical therapist today.

For more information regarding the opioid epidemic and how physical therapy can help, visit

Studies referenced:

Frogner BK et al. Physical Therapy as the First Point of Care to Treat Low Back Pain: An Intrumental Variables Approach to Estimate Impact on Opioid Prescription, Health Care Utilization, and Costs. Health Serv Res. 2018 Dec; 53(6):4629-4646.

Sum E et al. Association of Early Physical Therapy With Long-term Opioid Use Among Opioid-Naive Patients with Musculoskeletal Pain. JAMA Netw Open. 2018; 1(8):e185909.

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