Physical therapy as an alternative to opioids in treating musculoskeletal injuries

[fa icon="calendar'] Mar 15, 2017 1:54:41 PM / by Deborah Lechner

The use of opioid painkillers has skyrocketed to epidemic levels in the United States in recent years. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there were enough opioid painkillers prescribed in 2012 for every American to have their own bottle (almost 260 million prescriptions). Opioids are highly addictive, and taking them can lead to dependence and overdose, which is now the primary cause of accidental death in the U.S.

There is also a high financial cost to both injured workers abusing opioids and their employers. A recent study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that healthcare costs for workers with workers’ compensation and short-term disability claims were much higher for those with diagnosed opioid abuse. 

Opioid-Abuse-blog-graphic.pngTaking opioids after an injury only masks the underlying problem; opioids block the brain’s perception of pain, but do nothing to treat an injury or prevent it from worsening.

Now, for the good news: there is an effective alternative treatment for musculoskeletal injuries that that does not include opioids — physical therapy. Physical therapy works because it addresses the underlying cause of the pain or injury. If an injury is treated quickly with physical therapy, it is much less likely to become a chronic issue. Research shows that employees who undergo physical therapy within three or four days of an injury are much less likely to end up in long-term disability than employees who delay treatment for several weeks.

Many musculoskeletal injuries can be treated in as little as three to four physical therapy visits if the employee is seen within a day or two of injury. Unfortunately, most employees don’t have immediate access to physical therapy, and instead, injured employees first visit a local doctor to address the pain. The doctor often puts the injured employee on an opioid pain medication and bedrest, then restricted duty, and a few weeks or months later they finally end up in physical therapy because — surprise, surprise — they are still experiencing pain. The problem? The underlying causes were never addressed, and because of the delay, the initial issue worsens and becomes much harder to treat.

When time is of the essence, bridge the gap between injury and treatment with Worksite PT.   

Worksite physical therapy programs place licensed physical therapists “on the job” to evaluate work-related injuries within a day or two of onset. With no offsite travel and a convenient, walk-in atmosphere, injured employees enjoy rapid access to treatment, minimizing lost-time and maximizing the odds an employee can remain on the job, and insuring a rapid return when they can’t. Many employers with Worksite PT programs require a physical therapy assessment of non-emergency musculoskeletal injuries before they are sent to a doctor. Onsite assessment provides cost-effective triage, saving expensive hospital and doctor’s visits for the injuries that really need them. If onsite treatment isn’t an option, a “near-site” clinical partner that is only minutes away can be just as effective.

Worksite PT programs can deliver big savings in post-injury treatment and rapid return to work. But why wait for injury to occur in the first place? Forward-thinking employers are already reaping the benefits of OSHA-compliant worksite first-aid prevention programs. The same licensed physical therapists caring for musculoskeletal strains and sprains can also follow OSHA first-aid criteria for rapid, non-recordable treatment— before a musculoskeletal discomfort becomes an injury.

Regardless of whether an employer choses worksite physical therapy treatment, near-site physical therapy treatment or first-aid musculoskeletal prevention, the goal is the same: make sure employees have an early and safe alternative to taking opioids, and are able to work injury and pain-free.  

For more information on implementing a physical therapy program at your workplace, call Lane Savage at 205-879-6447, ext 224.

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Topics: Workers' Compensation, Injury Prevention, Return to Work

Deborah Lechner

Written by Deborah Lechner

Deborah Lechner, ErgoScience President, combines an extensive research background with 25-plus years of clinical experience. Under her leadership, ErgoScience continues to use the science of work to improve workplace safety, productivity and profitability.