Physical Therapy Instead of Opioids For Seniors

Even seniors are at risk for opioid overuse and abuse, but steering towards physical therapy is a much safer option

Pain is the number one reason people seek out medical care, and painful conditions are more common in the U.S. than diabetes, cancer, and heart disease combined. This is one of the driving forces behind the opioid epidemic, which continues to rage on and claim lives in its wake. There were more than 47,000 opioid-related overdose deaths in just 2017 alone, meaning that about 130 people die because of opioids every day.

In thinking about the opioid crisis and who is affected by it, you might have a general picture of the types of individuals who use and abuse these drugs. For most of us, senior citizens are probably not the first group that comes to mind, but the truth is that they are also impacted by the prevalence of opioids in this country in very alarming ways.

Chronic pain is particularly common in seniors, and about 8 in 10 of them struggle with multiple health conditions at once. As a result, many of these seniors are being prescribed opioids to cope with their pain, with the same types of risk for abuse as are seen in other age groups. Two government reports published in 2018 warn that opioid prescriptions for older adults are very high and often associated with a number of negative effects.

Issued by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, a team focused on trends regarding opioid-related hospitalizations and emergency department visits in the senior citizen population. Their findings included the following key points:

  • Opioid-driven complications were the cause of nearly 125,000 hospitalizations and more than 36,000 emergency department visits for seniors in 2015
  • Between 2010-2015, there was a 34% jump in the number of opioid-related inpatient hospital admissions among seniors
  • Nearly 20% of seniors (one in five) filled at least one opioid prescription between 2015-2016, which equated to about 10 million seniors; more than 4 million of these individuals (about 7%) filled prescriptions for four or more opioids, which was characterized as “frequent” use

Why physical therapy is a great alternative to opioids

Whether you’re surprised by it or not, older adults are still at risk for being caught up in the opioid epidemic, which can have some seriously negative consequences. This is why it’s crucial to promote alternatives to opioids in this population, and the best possible option out there is physical therapy. Unlike opioids, which only mask the sensation of pain, physical therapy focuses on identifying its source and helping patients overcome it with a series of carefully designed movements and exercises. And perhaps best of all, physical therapy is universally regarded as a safe intervention with nearly no risk for side effects, and the more sessions that are completed, the better the outcomes are.

So if you’re an older adult that’s currently dealing with pain or you have a loved one that falls into this category, we strongly recommend that you consider physical therapy over opioids as a movement-based strategy that’s proven get to the root of pain and relieve it.