Physical therapy professional examining a man

The Role of PTAs in Chronic Pain Management

Learn How PTAs Can Improve the Lives of Patients with Chronic Pain

Physical therapy professional examining a man

Chronic pain affects a significant portion of the global population. Unlike acute pain, a temporary discomfort signaling an injury or illness, chronic pain lingers well beyond the average healing time and can last for months or years. It’s estimated that chronic pain affects around 20% of the world’s population, meaning one in five, or about 1.5 billion people, suffer from chronic pain (CP), underscoring the pressing need for effective management strategies.

The impact of chronic pain on an individual’s daily life extends far beyond physical discomfort, affecting every aspect of a person’s life. Chronic pain often hinders mobility, reducing the ability to perform daily tasks, and has a significant effect on mental health, leading to conditions such as depression and anxiety. This chronic discomfort often creates a vicious cycle, where pain exacerbates stress, which subsequently exacerbates the pain.

Physical Therapist Assistants (PTAs) play a crucial role in rehabilitation. They work with patients of all ages and backgrounds, including those recovering from surgeries, suffering from chronic pain, or managing neurological conditions. Their primary responsibilities revolve around exercise programs, manual therapy techniques, and patient education.

This blog post will explore the specific contributions and challenges of PTAs treating chronic pain patients. We’ll also review this career path’s duties, techniques, and educational requirements. Learn how to become a Physical Therapist Assistant and consider the top PTA jobs to see if physical therapy suits you.

Understanding Chronic Pain Management

Given chronic pain’s complex nature and broad impact, Physical Therapist Assistants (PTAs) must have a deep understanding and empathy for their patients’ unique pain experiences. PTAs play a vital role in managing and treating chronic pain. Their approach needs to be patient-centric, considering the physical symptoms and the emotional, social, and psychological aspects of the individual’s pain experience.

This personalized approach aids in more effective pain management and fosters a trusting relationship between PTA and patient, essential for long-term success.

Some common conditions associated with chronic pain include:

  • Fibromyalgia
  • Arthritis
  • Chronic back pain
  • Neuropathic pain

The Role of PTAs in Chronic Pain Management

Physical Therapist Assistants work under physical therapists. Although no day is alike, PTAs in chronic pain management generally assist with therapeutic exercises, manual therapy, and patient education. These professionals promote resilience and facilitate adjustment to life with chronic pain. PTAs are important in monitoring patient progress, adjusting treatment plans, and providing ongoing support to help patients manage their pain effectively.

In addition, PTAs must maintain a collaborative approach and collaborate with physical therapists, pain specialists, psychologists, and other healthcare professionals to create comprehensive pain management plans. Typically, PTAs also collaborate with their patients’ families and caregivers.

Man gripping his lower back in pain

Common Conditions Treated by PTAs in Chronic Pain Patients

PTAs may encounter a range of common conditions associated with chronic pain, such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic low back pain, and neuropathy. Take a closer look at each condition with us.


Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease characterized by the gradual breakdown of cartilage; the smooth tissue cushions the ends of bones in the joints. As the cartilage wears away, bones rub against each other, leading to pain, swelling, stiffness, and reduced mobility. This condition commonly affects weight-bearing joints such as the knees, hips, and spine but can also impact the hands and other joints. Osteoarthritis progresses slowly and can significantly impact daily activities and overall quality of life.

Some causes of osteoarthritis include aging, joint injury, repetitive stress on the joint, obesity, and genetic predisposition. Typical symptoms are joint pain or stiffness and swelling. You might also experience a decreased range of motion and a grating sensation during movement. In physical therapy, PTAs use exercise programs to improve flexibility and strength, manual therapy to reduce pain and improve joint function, and education on assistive devices like braces and walkers to provide better support.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that causes chronic inflammation of the joints, resulting in pain, swelling, and, eventually, joint deformity. In this condition, the immune system mistakenly attacks the synovium—the lining of the membranes that surround the joints. This leads to inflammation that can damage the cartilage and bone within the joint. Rheumatoid arthritis typically affects multiple joints symmetrically, including the hands, wrists, knees, and feet, and can also cause systemic symptoms like fatigue and fever. Over time, this progressive disease can lead to significant joint damage and loss of function.

While genetic factors can cause rheumatoid arthritis, other risk factors include smoking, obesity, and environmental exposures. Look out for symptoms like joint pain, swelling, and stiffness (especially in the morning). You might also experience fatigue or a fever. Through physical therapy, people with rheumatoid arthritis can benefit from range of motion exercises, strengthening exercises, manual therapy, and patient education on joint protection techniques.

Chronic Low Back Pain

Low back pain is a common condition affecting the lower portion of the spine and can manifest as acute or chronic discomfort. This condition involves the lumbar region, ranging from a dull, constant ache to sudden, sharp pain. Causes of low back pain include muscle strain, herniated discs, poor posture, and degenerative conditions such as arthritis. It can be triggered by lifting heavy objects, sudden movements, or prolonged sitting. Low back pain is a leading cause of disability and can significantly impact daily activities and quality of life.

Causes and risk factors include poor posture, muscle or ligament strain, herniated discs, arthritis, and a sedentary lifestyle. When it comes to symptoms, pay attention to dull or sharp pain in the lower back, muscle tightness, difficulty standing or walking, and pain radiating down the legs. If you pursue physical therapy, you will likely work with a PTA and complete core strengthening exercises, stretching, manual therapy, and ergonomic education to prevent recurrence.

Close up of a woman gripping her foot in pain


Neuropathy, or peripheral neuropathy, occurs when nerves outside the brain or spinal cord become damaged. This condition can result in numbness, weakness, and pain. You will typically experience these symptoms in your hands or feet. However, some people feel the effects of neuropathy in areas like digestion or urination. Some common causes of neuropathy include diabetes, infections, traumatic injuries, and metabolic issues. Others may suffer from neuropathy after being exposed to certain toxins.

According to Advanced Pain Management Center, physical therapy can offer many benefits to people with neuropathy. Physical therapy supports “the recovery of damaged nerves,” and can reduce pain and increase blood flow and circulation. Additionally, physical therapy can help neuropathy patients boost their muscle strength, improve balance, reduce fall risks, and enhance range of motion. Don’t forget: Physical therapy often improves your physical and mental well-being, too.

Techniques Utilized in Chronic Pain Management

PTAs use various techniques to assist their patients with chronic pain management. Through individualized treatment plans, they may utilize therapeutic exercises, manual therapy, and aquatic therapy. In addition, PTAs might use modalities like ultrasound and Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS).

We also want to highlight the importance of patient education, self-management techniques, and lifestyle modifications in optimizing pain relief and functional outcomes.

As previously mentioned, here are some common modalities used in chronic pain management:

  • Heat therapy: Heat is applied through various means, such as hot packs, warm baths, or heating pads. It works by increasing blood flow to the affected area, which helps reduce muscle tension and relieve pain. Heat therapy is particularly beneficial for muscle stiffness and joint pain associated with arthritis.
  • Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS): Another widely used technology, TENS units deliver small electrical impulses through the skin to the nerve fibers, which can help reduce pain. The electrical impulses can interfere with normal pain signals, blocking their path to the brain, and also stimulate the production of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers. TENS is often used for neuropathic pain and conditions like fibromyalgia.
  • Ultrasound Therapy: This technique utilizes sound waves to penetrate deep into tissue, reducing inflammation, easing muscle spasms, and increasing blood flow.
  • Cold Therapy: In this therapy, cold packs or ice are applied to reduce inflammation and numb sore areas. It’s especially useful immediately after an injury.
  • Assistive Mobility Devices: These devices may include canes, walkers, or braces, which can help patients move and perform daily activities with less pain.
  • Biofeedback: A technique that teaches patients how to control certain body functions (like muscle tension) to reduce pain.

How to Become a Physical Therapist Assistant

Because PTAs must meet the basic requirements, they will need to graduate from an accredited associate-degree program and pass the NPTE exam. These Physical Therapist Assistants must ensure that they can care for patients with chronic pain.

Female physical therapy professional helping a patient stretch

Our guide breaks down what it takes to become a Physical Therapist Assistant:

1. Complete a Physical Therapist Assistant Degree Program

If you’d like to become a PTA in the U.S., you will need to earn an associate degree from a PTA program that’s accredited by CAPTE. It’s important to remember that each program will have its own set of admissions requirements. To give you a better idea, the PTA degree program at Unitek College requires a high school diploma or GED, a passing score on the Test of Essential Academic Skills (TEAS) exam, and more. In addition, the Unitek College program requires background checks and drug screenings.

While your PTA education will likely include some general education requirements, most of your program will focus on core classes like anatomy, physical ailments, medical terminology, and patient care. Students also typically learn about kinesiology and equipment operation, not to mention mental health and legal issues. Ask your program director what elective courses you can try to specialize further in your desired area of physical therapy.

2. Pass the National Physical Therapy Exam

In order to obtain your PTA license and start your career, you must pass the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE). This test demonstrates your mastery of the necessary skills to perform PTA tasks. The NPTE is a multiple-choice test with 200 questions. Keep in mind that you’ll have four hours to complete this exam.

If you’re nervous about taking the test, you might want to speak with graduates who have been in this situation. Talk to your teachers and counselors. Consider practice exams, too. Go to the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy website to learn more about these exams. They offer PEAT, or the Practice Exam and Assessment Tool, to provide you with an idea of what to expect on the exam. However, it’s important to remember that you can only retake the test up to three times in any given 12-month period.

3. Obtain Your PTA License on a State-By-State Basis

After you’ve successfully completed the NPTE, you’ll be eligible to become licensed in the state(s) where you plan to work. Because the NPTE is a national exam, it’s usually easy to transfer your scores to gain licensure in different states. The Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy will be your go-to resource for determining each state’s licensing requirements for PTAs.

Although some states have different requirements for maintaining your PTA license, most states will require the completion of ongoing education programs or proof of current employment and relevant work experience.

4. Gain Work Experience

The next step is to build your resume and gain work experience. If you’d like to stand out from other job candidates, you should also obtain certification in basic life support (BLS). PTAs who would like to specialize in chronic pain management should apply for jobs with physical therapists who focus on this area of physical therapy. Not only is this one of the most valuable ways to gain experience, but it can also serve as an excellent networking opportunity.

Physical therapy professional helping an older man stretch

Challenges of Treating Chronic Pain Patients

Physical Therapist Assistants face several challenges with patients who have chronic pain, such as variability in pain levels, patient adherence to treatment plans, the psychological impact of chronic pain, and meeting other complex care needs. Some strategies to overcome these challenges can include patient-centered care, effective communication, and interdisciplinary collaboration.

In addition, PTAs in this role must know how to properly interact with vulnerable patients. This includes several mental and emotional skills. Again, since PTAs work directly with people who experience chronic pain, they should possess great interpersonal skills and compassionate traits.

Benefits of Treating Chronic Pain Patients

Many healthcare professionals find it very satisfying to work with patients who manage chronic pain. Not only can PTAs make a meaningful impact on the lives of others, but they can derive great satisfaction from helping patients achieve pain relief, regain mobility, and improve their overall well-being.

PTAs play an important role in empowering patients to take an active role in their pain management and recovery journey. They strive to inspire others and help them reach their full potential. More often than not, PTAs create important and significant connections with their patients.

Your Journey into Physical Therapy Starts Here

In conclusion, this guide sheds light on the career path of a Physical Therapist Assistant. For people who love the idea of helping patients reduce their pain and promote independence, becoming a PTA could be a wonderful career choice. Physical therapy can provide PTAs with a great deal of job satisfaction as they guide patients through recovery and advocate for resilience. Now and in the future, there will always be a need for transformative healthcare professionals like Physical Therapist Assistants.

Explore opportunities in chronic pain management, where you’ll find a diverse range of settings and populations. In this dynamic field, you can pursue your passion for physical therapy with ongoing education and professional development. Unitek College offers a Physical Therapist Assistant program in Sacramento and several other healthcare programs. They are designed to equip you with the skills and knowledge needed for a successful healthcare career.

At Unitek, we aim to provide you with the necessary skills and experience to excel as a Physical Therapist Assistant. We want you ready to contribute as compassionate, ethical professionals who uphold the dignity of their patients. Upon graduating, we also want to prepare you for licensure by helping you confidently undertake the PTA certification exams.

In addition, our career services team offers several perks. They provide students with mock interviews and networking opportunities with potential employers. They also offer resume critiques to help each student succeed in becoming a PTA.

Join us today!