Physical modalities in chronic pain management

Document Type


Peer Reviewed


Publication Date


NLM Title Abbreviation

Nurs Clin North Am

Journal/Book/Conference Title

The Nursing clinics of North America

PubMed ID


DOI of Published Version


Start Page


End Page



The following conclusions can be made based on review of the evidence: There is limited but positive evidence that select physical modalities are effective in managing chronic pain associated with specific conditions experienced by adults and older individuals. Overall, studies have provided the most support for the modality of therapeutic exercise. Different physical modalities have similar magnitudes of effects on chronic pain. Therefore, selection of the most appropriate physical modality may depend on the desired functional outcome for the patient, the underlying impairment, and the patient's preference or prior experience with the modality. Certain patient characteristics may decrease the effectiveness of physical modalities, as has been seen with TENS. These characteristics include depression, high trait anxiety, a powerful others locus of control, obesity, narcotic use, and neuroticism. The effect on pain by various modalities is generally strongest in the short-term period immediately after the intervention series, but effects can last as long as 1 year after treatment (e.g., with massage). Most research has tested the effect of physical modalities on chronic low back pain and knee OA. The effectiveness of physical modalities for other chronic pain conditions needs to be evaluated more completely. Older and younger adults often experience similar effects on their perception of pain from treatment with physical modalities. Therefore, use of these modalities for chronic pain in older adults is appropriate, but special precautions need to be taken. Practitioners applying physical modalities need formal training that includes the risks and precautions for these modalities. If practitioners lack formal training in the use of physical modalities, or if modality use is not within their scope of practice, it is important to consult with and refer patients to members of the team who have this specialized training. Use of a multidisciplinary approach to chronic pain management is of value for all adults and older individuals in particular [79-81]. Historically, physical therapists have been trained to evaluate and treat patients with the range of physical modalities discussed in this article. Although members of the nursing staff traditionally have used some of these modalities (e.g. some forms of heat or cold and massage), increasing numbers of nurses now are being trained to apply more specialized procedures (e.g., TENS). Healthcare professionals must be knowledgeable about the strength of evidence underlying the use of physical modalities for the management of chronic pain. Based on the limited research evidence available (especially related to assistive devices, orthotics, and thermal modalities), it often is difficult to accept or exclude select modalities as having a potential role in chronic pain management for adults and older individuals. Improved research methodologies are needed to address physical modality effectiveness better.


Adult, Age Factors, Aged, Chronic Disease, Cryotherapy, Electric Stimulation Therapy, Evidence-Based Medicine, Exercise Therapy, Hot Temperature/therapeutic use, Humans, Massage, Orthotic Devices, Pain/diagnosis/therapy, Pain Measurement, Patient Care Team, Physical Therapy Modalities/methods/nursing/standards, Self-Help Devices, Transcutaneous Electric Nerve Stimulation, Treatment Outcome

Published Article/Book Citation

The Nursing clinics of North America, 38:3 (2003) pp.477-494.

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