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Early physical therapy for musculoskeletal pain linked to lower opioid use

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Musculoskeletal pain affects the joints, bones and muscles. According to the NHS, there are over 200 musculoskeletal conditions which affect one in four adults in the UK — impacting on quality of life for millions of people.

New research offers an insight into the benefits of early physical therapy for musculoskeletal pain, showing that people who have physical therapy within three months of diagnosis are less likely to use opioids for pain relief.

In a study published in the journal JAMA Network Open, researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine analysed healthcare insurance claims data for nearly 89,000 patients with shoulder, neck, knee or low back pain.

They wanted to determine the association between early physical therapy and subsequent opioid use in patients with a new musculoskeletal pain diagnosis.

Of the 88,985 patients included, 58% were male and 42% were female and the average age was 46 years. The patients were classed as ‘opioid naive’, defined as having filled no prescription for an opioid in the 12 months before diagnosis, but all were given an opioid prescription within the next three months.

Almost three in 10 patients (29%) received early physical therapy (at least one session within three months of diagnosis).

The analysis showed that early physical therapy was associated with an approximately 10% reduction in subsequent opioid use for shoulder, knee and low back pain but not neck pain.

The findings suggest early physical therapy may play a role in reducing the risk of subsequent long-term opioid use by patients with musculoskeletal pain, the researchers concluded.