Opioid-free relief

People who have physical therapy soon after a diagnosis for shoulder, back and other musculoskeletal pain are less likely to use opioids, an analysis shows.

Illustration of someone stretching

People who receive physical therapy soon after a diagnosis of shoulder pain, back pain or other musculoskeletal ailment are less likely to use opioids to manage their pain long term, according to a recent study by researchers at Stanford and Duke universities.

The research explored whether physical therapy could provide an effective nonpharmacologic approach to opioid use for managing shoulder, lower back, knee and neck pain. Patients who underwent physical therapy soon after being diagnosed were about 7% to 16% less likely to use opioids in the subsequent months, the study showed.

For all patients who used opioids except those with neck pain, early physical therapy was associated with a 5% to 10% reduction in how much of the drug they used, the study found. There was no significant reduction for patients with neck pain.

“This isn’t a world where there are magic bullets,” said Eric Sun, MD, PhD, assistant professor of anesthesiology, perioperative and pain medicine at Stanford and the lead author of the study. “But many guidelines suggest that physical therapy is an important component of pain management, and there is little downside to trying it.”

The study, which analyzed 88,985 private health insurance claims for care and prescriptions between 2007 and 2015, was published Dec. 14 in JAMA Network Open.