Anxiety and Chronic Pain - Physical Therapy Research at PCOM
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Anxiety and Chronic Pain 
Physical Therapy Research at PCOM

August 3, 2023

Do psychological factors change the experience of pain? Do anxiety levels or long-standing anxiety traits affect how sensitive muscles are to the application of pressure stimuli?

Scott W. Lowe, PT, DPT, OCS, FAAOMPT, works with a patient.
Dr. Scott Lowe is researching the connection between anxiety and pain perception.

These are questions Scott W. Lowe, PT, DPT, OCS, FAAOMPT, is trying to answer with his research. Lowe has specialized clinically in the treatment of individuals with chronic pain but acknowledges there are gaps in existing research on this topic. Lowe is working to fill in those gaps by contributing to medical knowledge around the multifactorial nature of pain.

“We are working to gain understanding of how anxiety levels impact the sensory processing of pain,” Lowe explained.

Participants in his research study are asked to complete a standardized questionnaire about anxiety levels. Researchers then conduct a pain-pressure threshold test on each subject in which they use a device to measure how much pressure is applied before the participant describes the pressure as uncomfortable.

“From the patient standpoint, this information could be very useful to clinicians in better understanding which responses are considered normal versus abnormal,” Lowe said.

Can anxiety cause chronic pain?

Elements such as anxiety can factor into a patient’s report of how they feel. As a result, it is important for every healthcare provider to have a thorough understanding of how pain works and which factors impact it.

“Every practitioner is familiar with the numeric pain rating scale, but we also can easily see its limitations,” Lowe said. “Medicine as a whole is looking a lot at both mental health and pain, this avenue of investigation makes us more literate in both realms.”

How important is physical therapy for chronic pain?

In the past decade, research has altered the understanding of pain and treatment paradigms.

According to Lowe, his interest in the topic of anxiety and chronic pain arose from his clinical practice where he had success treating patients with persistent pain. The developing nature of research in this area also intrigued him. Now, as an assistant professor with PCOM Georgia’s Doctor of Physical Therapy program, he is sharing his passion for this topic with his students.

Key Points
  • Researcher Scott Lowe is probing anxiety's impact on pain perception to advance chronic pain treatment in physical therapy.
  • Findings offer insights for clinicians to distinguish normal vs. abnormal pain reactions, improving patient care.
  • By involving students, Lowe advances pain neuroscience understanding, preparing future physical therapists for evolving practices.

“I teach predominantly kinesiology and orthopedic content, so one of the big ways I incorporate this content is some of the science of pain and how symptoms are not always directly related to mechanical issues,” he explained.

Lowe has noted that often outdated ideas about pain often exist even among graduate healthcare students. By involving students in his research, he hopes to change that.

“Several of my students have been involved in this project as both co-investigators as well as subjects, so they are getting some first-hand experience into some of these more advanced pain neuroscience topics,” he said.

Lowe believes this experience will serve his students well as they become practicing physical therapists.

“The importance of knowledge about this topic has only increased as awareness of the opioid crisis has increased,” Lowe explained. “These current concepts apply well within every physical therapy practice setting so we are actively preparing our students to be on the leading edge of how the profession is advancing.”

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