“Going to sleep is a terrifying experience when you know it hurts all night,” says Carolyn James, a Redbud Physical Therapy patient.
James had three surgeries in four years that left her with nerve pain. “I do not like being on medications that alter my ability to do my work and take care of my family, so I wouldn’t take the meds as often as needed to work,” she says. “Then, the pain became unbearable at night.”
James’ primary care physician referred her to a pain management specialist who suggested she seek treatment at Redbud. In addition to traditional physical therapy like mobilization, manipulation, exercise and dry needling, Redbud began offering virtual reality this year in all of its 15 clinics in northeastern Oklahoma.
“We know our bodies are made up of this network of electrical and chemical signals, and they’re running rampant all the time, and with someone who has chronic pain, we need to work not only on the physical aspect of their pain, but also on the pain generator, which is the brain,” says Amy Malone, a physical therapist and regional director of Redbud. “I can’t go in and manipulate their spinal cord and touch their nerves, so we’re using a virtual reality concept. It’s pain education that helps the patient get a handle on what their brain is doing to exacerbate their pain.”
James says she has found relief with physical therapy — aquatic therapy and virtual reality — as well as a prescribed muscle relaxer once a day.
“Since starting virtual reality, when I wake up in pain, I start slowly breathing in and out, focusing on relaxing muscles instead of the fear that I automatically went to before,” James says. “Last night I actually slept, which is not a common occurrence for me.”
Virtual reality is just one way Redbud is helping patients manage pain as part of “PT Over Pills,” a national endeavor to replace medication with physical therapy treatments.
“For years, the go-to for doctors has been control pain, control pain, control pain — rightly so — and the fastest way to do that is with pain pills,” Malone says. “However, that’s unfortunately been a quick fix, and now many patients are addicted to opioids.”
In 2017, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency to address the national opioid crisis. Opioid overdoses led to more than 42,000 deaths in the U.S. in 2016, and an estimated 40% involved a prescription opioid. Prescription pain reliever opioids include oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine and morphine.
According to a 2018 report from the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, “Oklahoma continues to lead the nation in the abuse of prescription opioids.” More than 4.1 million opioid prescriptions were dispensed in Oklahoma in 2017, which equates to a prescribing rate of 106.7 prescriptions per 100 people. Further, the 2016 Centers for Disease Control Guidelines for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain recommends nonpharmacologic therapy like physical therapy as a pain management method.
Malone says physical therapy focuses on putting the patient back in control so they can replace suffering with hope.