Atlanta, GA,
12:55 PM

Quieting the “Pain Alarm”: Physical Therapy and Chronic Pain

Chris Nesbitt, PT, uses physical therapy to address chronic pain and helps patients get their lives back on track.

Q:  What do you do at Shepherd Center and how long have you been here?

I am a physical therapist in the Dean Stroud Spine and Pain Institute at Shepherd Center. I work with people who have chronic pain issues limiting their function or negatively affecting their quality of life. I have worked at Shepherd Center since 2004.

Q: What is chronic pain?

The simplest description of chronic pain is pain that continues for more than three months. It can generally be understood as pain that lasts longer than it took for an injury or illness to heal. Sometimes this happens for no obvious reason. Pain is like an alarm system to help protect us, but with chronic pain, the alarm can get too sensitive. During the past 30 years, we have learned that chronic pain can change our nervous systems and how our brains process pain. We strive to be mindful of our words because how we talk about pain can strongly influence a person’s understanding of their condition and pain experience.

Q: What do you want people to understand about chronic pain?

Pain is not equal to tissue damage. If the tissues are healed from an injury and the person is still experiencing pain, then there are ways to address it. If a person is experiencing pain, they are experiencing pain, even if you can’t see it. The better someone understands how pain works, the better they can manage it. One easy-to-access resource is

Q: How does physical therapy for chronic pain differ from other forms of physical therapy?

It’s all physical therapy! The profession is changing, and more PT programs are including pain science, which leads to improvements in approaches to pain. As a specialty pain clinic, we sometimes focus more on things that can be difficult to measure. We often see people with neurological conditions that affect how they move. Over time, altered movement patterns can influence orthopedic issues that increase pain with daily activities. A lot of things can influence the pain of someone living with a long-term chronic condition. Some people begin to experience pain with activities that are not normally expected to hurt. That is a sign the pain system has become increasingly sensitive. For some people experiencing chronic pain, we use a series  of “brain exercises” called Graded Motor Imagery. It’s a strategy to get the pain alarm system to return to its normal settings.

Q: What is your favorite part of your job?

People living with pain can be frustrated with healthcare experiences because they don’t feel like the doctor or therapist believes or understands them. Patients appreciate someone who will listen to their experience and acknowledge that their experience is real and makes sense. Sometimes we can really help people feel like they got a part of their lives back because we helped them put their pain on the back burner. That’s a nice thing to work for.

How do I schedule an appointment for physical therapy?

We require a referral from a physician, nurse practitioner, or physician’s assistant prior to scheduling. Please contact the New Patient Coordinator at 404-603-4203 or email at to provide your referral and to inquire about scheduling an appointment.

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About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.