To better address the growing opioid epidemic and evidence of the important role that physical therapists play in caring for patients with pain, UCF’s physical therapy program developed a new course solely focused on pain. According to Carey Rothschild, an assistant professor in the physical therapy doctorate program, it’s the only PT program in Florida to have such a class.

The 12-week summer course debuted in 2019 and teaches students about the physical, psychological and social aspects of pain management. Students spend a majority of the semester focusing not only on the physiological aspect of pain, but also on its psychological and social effects. Topics such as perceptions of pain, lifestyle factors including sleep and nutrition and the impact of stress are covered during the course. Students hear from experts on pain and participate in simulation exercises.

“This course helps students apply and understand the new, overall wellness model of patient care,” says Rothschild. “The previous model looked at what was wrong with the person physically and figure out how to fix it, while this newer model focuses on the social and psychological components that influence pain and incorporate those elements into the treatment.”

Second-year student Travis Smith took the course in summer 2020 and says the holistic approach to pain has been applicable for his first internship, adding that he uses material he learned in the class every week.

“Learning about the external influences from someone’s life — such as stress levels, diet and sleep — that influence pain has shaped everything from my demeanor during my initial evaluation on through to how and when I progress a patient’s exercises,” he says.

Smith says the idea of individualized treatment really resonated with him.

“My favorite thing about the course is the emphasis that was put on treating our patients as complete individuals rather than just a diagnosis,” he says. “Just because two people have the same injury, or have had the same surgery, that doesn’t mean they’ll feel the same pain the same way.”

Research affirms the benefits of physical therapy in treating pain. In articles published in 2016 in PLOS One and 2018 in Health Services Research, patients with lower back pain who saw a physical therapist first had an 89 percent lower probability of having an opioid prescription, almost 15 percent fewer emergency room visits and significantly lower overall costs of care.

The timing of the course in the curriculum is purposeful. Taken during the second year right before students’ begin their clinical internships, the course prepares students to go into the field and interact with real patients.

Milica Tintor, a third-year physical therapy student, was in the first cohort to take the pain course. She says she has treated many patients with chronic pain in the field and the course gave her more insight and confidence while treating them.

“I enjoyed learning about the different aspects of pain and now am able to apply that knowledge firsthand in my clinical studies,” Tintor says.

Training physical therapists to address pain and all of its potential sources leads to improved quality of life for the 50 million adults in the U.S. who report living with chronic pain, says Patrick Pabian, director of the UCF physical therapy program.

“New development of courses such as this allow us to maintain a contemporary education of our future doctors of physical therapy,” Pabian says. “By enhancing our curriculum, we can meet the changing needs of society.”