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Physiotherapy works: Chronic pain

File 125258Physiotherapy maximises activity, improves quality of life and promotes self-management for people with chronic pain.

What is chronic pain?

Chronic, persistent or long-term pain is pain continuing beyond 3 months or after healing is complete.(1)

Affecting adults and children, it may arise from tissue damage or inflammation or have no identified cause. It can affect a specific body area (e.g. Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, low back pain (LBP), pelvic pain) or be widespread (e.g. fibromyalgia). Chronic pain is a complex condition with physical, social and psychological components, which can lead to disability, loss of independence and poor quality of life (QoL).(2)

Cost of chronic pain

  • Pain is the second most common reason for claiming incapacity benefit, costing £3.8 billion annually(17)
  • £584 million a year is spent on prescriptions for pain(15)
  • Annual healthcare costs for patients with chronic LBP are double those of matched controls (£1,074 vs. £516).(18)


Significant impact

  • Chronic back pain affects 1.6 million adults per year(15)
  • 7.8 million people in the UK live with chronic pain(15)
  • Chronic pain accounts for 4.6 million GP appointments per year.(16)

Physiotherapy in hospitals, clinics and the community aims to achieve healthy levels of activity and self- management for people with chronic pain.(3) Clinical and cost-effectiveness evidence supports using a cognitive behavioural approach addressing both physical limitations and people’s beliefs about, and understanding of, their condition.(4) People with multiple health issues or whose pain is causing significant physical, psychological or social problems may require management by a multidisciplinary pain service. Specialist physiotherapists identify reasons for lack of progress in rehabilitation, such as fear avoidance of movement or unhelpful patterns of over-and under-activity.

GP referral to services for advice and exercise improves outcomes and is cost-effective.(5) Using a risk-stratification tool and providing risk-matched treatment improves the condition, shortens time off work, reduces sickness certification and healthcare costs.(6)

Manual therapy or acupuncture may produce short term benefit(7), but evidence supports the use of active treatments such as therapeutic exercise.(5) Multidisciplinary pain management programmes (PMP)(8)including physiotherapy(9) are an effective intervention for people with chronic pain(3,8) and cost-saving compared to physiotherapy alone.(10)

25% of people with chronic pain lose their jobs(15)

Physiotherapy supports and enables people with chronic pain to remain in or return to work.(3) Mindfulness(11) and acceptance & commitment therapy (ACT) have been shown to be as effective as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and are used in some centres.(12) Physiotherapists signpost people to online and community resources to support ongoing selfmanagement.(3) Increasingly physiotherapists use prescribing skills to optimise medication use.(13)

Case study

The Best multi-centre randomised controlled trial, involving 56 general practices across seven English regions, compared active management (AM) of patients with sub-acute or chronic LBP against AM plus CBT.

Outcomes measured included physical and mental QoL, fear avoidance beliefs and pain self-efficacy. Cost utility was evaluated using NHS costs. AM plus CBT had higher per-person costs (£178) and higher QoL. AM is highly cost-effective at currently accepted thresholds: Cost per quality-adjusted lifeyears (QALY) is about half that of competing LBP interventions.(14)


Chronic pain can impact significantly upon physical, emotional and social wellbeing. Physiotherapy utilising a broad scope of practice can safely and cost-effectively support and guide people with long term pain towards the best possible quality of life.


The CSP would like to thank the Executive Committee of the Physiotherapy Pain Association (PPA), Martin Hey Consultant Physiotherapist in Pain Management & Chair PPA and Joyce Craig (Craig Health Economics Consultancy Ltd).


  1. Merskey H, Bogduk N, editors. Classification of chronic pain. 2nd Rev ed. Seattle: IASP Press; 1994 (Rev 2011-2).
  2. Breivik H, Collett B, Ventafridda V, et al. Survey of chronic pain in Europe: Prevalence, impact on daily life, and treatment. European journal of pain (London, England). 2006;10(4):287-333.
  3. Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network Management of chronic pain (SIGN 136). Edinburgh: Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network; 2013.
  4. Moseley GL. Evidence for a direct relationship between cognitive and physical change during an education intervention in people with chronic low back pain. European journal of pain (London, England). 2004 Feb;8(1):39-45.
  5. Lin CW HM, Maher CG, Machado LA, van Tulder MW,. Cost-effectiveness of general practice care for low back pain: a systematic review European spine journal : official publication of the European Spine Society, the European Spinal Deformity Society, and the European Section of the Cervical Spine Research Society. 2011;20(7):1012-23.
  6. Foster NE, Mullis R, Hill JC, et al. Effect of stratified care for low back pain in family practice (IMPaCT Back): A prospective population-based sequential comparison. Ann Fam Med 2014;12(2):102-11.
  7. Hopton A, MacPherson H. Acupuncture for chronic pain: is acupuncture more than an effective placebo? A systematic review of pooled data from meta-analyses. Pain Practice. 2010;10(2):94-102.
  8. British Pain Society. Guidelines for pain management programmes for adults: an evidence based review prepared on behalf of the British Pain Society. London: British Pain Society; 2013.
  9. Scascighini L, Toma V, Dober-Spielmann S, et al. Multidisciplinary treatment for chronic pain: a systematic review of interventions and outcomes. Rheumatology. 2008 May;47(5):670-8.
  10. Critchley DJ, Ratcliffe J, Noonan S, et al. Effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of three types of physiotherapy used to reduce chronic low back pain disability: a pragmatic randomized trial with economic evaluation. Spine. 2007;32(14):1474-81.
  11. Chiesa A, Serretti A. Mindfulness-based interventions for chronic pain: a systematic review of the evidence. Journal of alternative and complementary medicine (New York, NY). 2011 Jan;17(1):83-93.
  12. Wetherell JL, Afari N, Rutledge T, et al. A randomized, controlled trial of acceptance and commitment therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy for chronic pain. Pain. 2011 Sep;152(9):2098-107.
  13. The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy. Practice guidance for physiotherapist supplementary and/or independent prescribers in the safe use of medicines (PD026). 2013. London The Chartered
    Society of Physiotherapy 2013. URL:
  14. Lamb SE, Lall R, Hansen Z, et al. A multicentred randomised controlled trial of a primary-care based cognitive behavioural programme for low back pain. The Back Skills Training (BeST) trial. Health Technology Assessment 2010;14(41)
  15. Donaldson L. Annual report of the Chief Medical Officer for 2008. London Department of Health 2009.
  16. Belsey J. Primary care workload in the management of chronic pain. A retrospective chort study using a GP database to identify resource implications for UK primary care J Med Econ 2002;5:39-50.
  17. The Chronic Pain Policy Coalition. About chronic pain. Policy Connect.
  18. Hong J RC, Norvick D, Happich M, . Costs associated with treatment of chronic low back pain: an analysis of the UK general practice database. Spine 2013 38(1):75-82.


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