Self-Management of Pain: Your Physical Therapist as a Guide

Too many medical approaches in today’s society are dependent on others (therapists, doctors, etc) and include passive treatments (medications, injections, etc.).  It can be empowering to take control of your own health and seek active forms of treatment for conditions such as low back pain, arthritis, or even every day sprains and strains.  Self-management allows you to develop a sense of control over your problem and offer you tools to use for a lifetime.  However, many are unsure where to start.

Therapeutic Alliance and Self-Management of Pain

In order to optimize self-management for any painful condition, a meaningful working relationship, or therapeutic alliance, in which the patient and provider work together, should be established.  This begins by developing a patient-preferred approach to treatment.  If you prefer to exercise aerobically then you should not be forced to perform lumbar stabilization exercises for your back pain.  If you enjoy strength training in the gym you should not be prescribed aerobic exercise for your knee pain.  Exercise you enjoy is medicine for the body and mind.  Both forms of exercise have been shown to be beneficial for managing back pain.  Let’s choose together what you prefer.

Developing a positive therapeutic alliance with your physical therapist also allows for the careful monitoring of progress over time.  There are going to ups and downs along the way.  Your physical therapist can help pick you up during challenging times.  Your physical therapist can also progress your plan appropriately when things are going well.  A physical therapist can work as a coach offering constructive feedback and encouragement.   They can help you make periodic adjustments to your self-management program.  With this approach, you are in control of your own health and your therapist acts only as a guide.

The interaction between you and your health care provider has been shown to be one of the strongest predictors of patient satisfaction with physical therapy care, and a key contributor to a successful outcome.  Research shows the amount and quality of the interaction between a patient and their physical therapist has a profound impact for those with persistent back pain.  Taking advantage of these positive interactions will magnify the effects of any exercise program or lifestyle modification. Having the same therapist, will potentially enhance the therapeutic alliance, guide you towards your preferred self-management strategies, and help you achieve the best possible long-term outcome.

What Self-Management Looks Like

Your physical therapist will first seek to understand your beliefs about pain and your condition.  Many people hold negative beliefs which are unhelpful to recovery or they are simply untrue.  For example, many people continue to believe that a herniated disc will never heal.  Your physical therapist will redirect you towards what you can control and strategies to improve self-efficacy.

Often a large amount of active participation over a long time is needed to change unhelpful beliefs and poor lifestyle habits.  Your physical therapist will guide you towards forms of physical activity you prefer and which are appropriate.  It is also important that you fully understand the time it takes for the body to heal itself.  The body’s natural healing mechanisms can be enhanced with the appropriate dose of physical activity.  Start too slow and your recovery will be delayed.  Start too fast and “flare-ups” will kill your motivation. Your physical therapist will help you find the best starting point and teach you how to progress.

Exacerbations of pain are going to occur.  You are going to have “flare-ups” of your back pain, neck pain, or shoulder pain.  This needs to be accepted and expected.  You want to develop resilience for these set ups.  There are always strategies available to help you through these challenging times.  Thinking the worst is never helpful in these situations.  Remaining optimistic is the first step.  Next, identify what is under your control to get you back on track.  This is where your physical therapist can help you focus your efforts.

Closing Thoughts                         

People with persistent painful conditions don’t always need more medical treatment.  They need a coach or guide to show them how to manage on their own with active forms of treatment.  Physical therapists can fill this role.  Developing a positive working relationship, or therapeutic alliance, with your physical therapist will get you set on the right track.  The rest is up to you.