Physical Therapy in Drug and Alcohol Recovery

Physical therapy can be a welcome addition to any substance use treatment program. People addicted to drugs or alcohol are often in poor physical health, and they can gain enormous benefits from the intervention of skilled, highly-trained physical therapists. Treatment programs for substance abuse work best when they address every aspect of a patient’s overall health, and physical therapy is often required to ensure those standards are met.

Treatment for addiction usually focuses on the mental, emotional, and behavioral aspects of drug and alcohol dependency.

But months or years of substance abuse can also compromise a person’s physical health, leaving them with health conditions that also require intervention. In general, their lifestyles while under the influence of drugs and alcohol are not conducive to the preservation of physical fitness and vitality, both of which are required for the successful completion of any wellness program.

Because of the decline in physical health that a drug or drinking problem can precipitate, physical therapy can be a highly useful addition to an addiction treatment regimen.

Comprehensive, multifaceted rehabilitation programs offered by high-quality drug and alcohol rehab centers often include options for physical therapy, since the ultimate goal of addiction treatment is to help those with substance use disorders regain their good health in all its dimensions.


People who misuse drugs and alcohol almost invariably neglect their health in every way imaginable—and suffer the consequences for it.

Some of the physical health problems known to be associated with substance use include:

  • Weakened immune systems, leading to frequent colds or regular bouts of the flu
  • Injuries sustained in accidents, many of which require long rehabilitation
  • Worsening of the symptoms of pre-existing illnesses, like diabetes, heart disease, HIV/AIDS, and hepatitis B or C
  • Chronic pain (often a precipitating factor in addiction)
  • The onset of diseases and disorders directly caused by substance abuse, including liver disease, lung disease, arthritis, dementia, and certain types of cancers (of the mouth, throat, liver, breast, colon, esophagus, rectum, and pancreas)

Regardless of the disease or disorder, a person who must struggle with such symptoms during their substance use recovery period will see a decline in their physical, emotional, and psychological strength and resiliency, coming at a time when they need all their resources to meet the immense challenges they face.

Physical therapy will not help with all the conditions listed, but it can help with many, and is associated with better outcomes for people who enter treatment for a substance use disorder.

Types of Physical Therapy and Their Uses in Substance Abuse Recovery


There are five subspecialties of physical therapy, four of which could be relevant to people receiving treatment for alcohol or drug use disorders:

  1. Orthopedic. For those who have musculoskeletal conditions, which include problems affecting the joints, tendons, ligaments, and bones. Therapy is designed to restore flexibility and lost functioning.
  2. Geriatric. Elderly people often need specialized services to help deal with conditions related to aging. Therapy will focus on restoring mobility, reducing chronic pain, and improving overall conditioning and fitness.
  3. Neurological. This type of physical therapy is specifically tailored to help people who face physical challenges related to neurological disorders or brain injuries.
  4. Cardiopulmonary. Cardiovascular diseases and pulmonary disorders can limit physical activity. Physical therapy for such conditions introduces patients to activities designed to improve conditioning and endurance.
  5. Pediatric. This is a specialty devoted to the diverse therapeutic needs of children and adolescents.

Due to long periods of inactivity and physical neglect, people battling addiction often lose flexibility, strength, and endurance. Lack of exercise, poor diet, and the overall stress of alcohol and drug abuse on the body all contribute to their poor health, and if they suffer from injuries sustained in accidents related to substance abuse their situation could be even more dire.

Elderly people with substance abuse problems are especially at risk for health complications, creating extra challenges for rehab centers tasked with bringing them back to wellness. The other group facing the highest risk for additional physical health problems are long-time alcohol or drug users—in fact, people whose substance abuse issues that have been going on for years are virtually certain to encounter physical health troubles that require medical treatment and physical rehabilitation.

Physical therapists with experience in orthopedic, geriatric, neurological, and cardiopulmonary therapy can create customized recovery plans for patients in treatment for substance use disorders, depending on the depth and nature of their maladies. Therapy will be offered as frequently as needed, at a pace that is reasonable and sustainable.

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Physical Therapy and Holistic Healing


In addition to conventional forms of physical therapy, people in recovery programs for addiction are often provided with opportunities to sample alternative healing methods that promote physical regeneration. Like physical therapy, these healing practices can help revitalize tired and ailing bodies by improving energy levels and restoring strength and flexibility—and they are also helpful for stress relief and the cultivation of peaceful states of mind.

Some of these practices include yoga, massage therapy, acupuncture, and Tai Chi, all of which make excellent complements to traditional physical therapy routines. Physical exercise is also encouraged during rehab at many treatment centers, and the combination of physical therapy, exercise, and mind-body healing practices can make a dramatic impact on a person’s overall state of health.

Inpatient and outpatient treatment programs are structured to be as comprehensive as necessary, and physical therapies of all types, including those that carry the holistic label, can be vital elements in an addiction recovery plan. True wellness requires healing of mind, body, soul, and spirit, and people who are working hard to overcome substance use disorders can benefit tremendously from the skilled expertise of trained physical therapists, who rely on evidence-based practices to achieve life-transforming results.