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Function first

Injury, surgery, medical conditions (such as a stroke or dementia) and even just aging can affect the way your body moves.

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I’ve had my share of injuries — back issues, plantar fasciitis, a broken pinky, broken ankles… Fortunately, I’ve been able to nurse myself back to health. It’s never easy, oftentimes frustrating, wanting to do something but can’t or can but unable to do it properly.

Injury, surgery, medical conditions (such as a stroke or dementia) and even just aging can affect the way your body moves. When this happens, physical therapy (PT) can help you get to your functional mobility goals — and help you prevent injury.

In the various specialties of the medicine, PT is a big part of recovery after substantial or chronic injuries. Patients need PT to heal properly and hopefully recover with minimal complications.

Who can benefit from PT

If injury, illness or age have prevented you from moving your body safely, effectively and without pain, then PT can help you get back on track. Whether you’ve had a stroke or suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome, I can’t stress this enough: go get physical therapy. It’s for anyone who wants to work toward their highest level of function under professional supervision. The lack of supervision is oftentimes what hampers patients on the road to recovery.

What to expect from therapy

PT starts with an evaluation, during which your Rehabilitation Medicine doctor and physical therapist will assess your overall functional mobility. This includes:
• Strength;
• Range of motion and joint
mobility;
• Flexibility;
• Pain and neurological function;
• Cardiovascular performance; and
• Balance.

After this evaluation, you, your physical therapist and your physician will work together to come up with your mobility goals and develop a plan for reaching them. This plan will be unique to you and your lifestyle. It may involve both one-on-one appointments in a “gym-like” facility, or a clinical setting like a hospital or outpatient facility and/or exercises you can do at home. PT also teaches you how to safely move your body to prevent injury.

Activities involved

Depending on your goals and abilities, PT can take a variety of forms and commonly involves one or more of the following:

• Working on activities of daily living;
• Balance and gait training;
• Heat and cold therapy and massage;
• Muscle retraining;
• Pain management strategies; and
• Exercises to improve strength,
flexibility, range of motion and mobility.

The lack of supervision is oftentimes what hampers patients on the road to recovery.

Physical, occupational and speech therapy

PT and occupational therapy (OT) often work in tandem with one main difference: PT focuses on improving the movement of the body, whereas OT focuses on improving your ability to perform activities of daily living.

For example, if you sustained an injury to your spine, PT would help you regain the ability to move your spine in all six directions and help eliminate pain. OT would help you resume your daily activities, such as dressing yourself, cooking a meal, driving and any activity that is important to you.

Speech therapy, on the other hand, helps patients (especially stroke patients) with their language and speaking skills, or helps them learn other forms of communication. Speech therapy is appropriate for patients who have little or no problems with cognition or thinking, but have problems understanding speech or written words, or problems forming speech. With time and patience, a stroke survivor should be able to regain some, and sometimes all, language and speaking abilities.

Difference between PT and exercise

PT and exercise go hand-in-hand. But PT is goal-oriented and typically involves improving function in targeted areas of the body. For example, if you tore your rotator cuff and had surgery to repair it, your physical therapist will work with you and your surgeon to create an exercise program that helps improve the movement, strength and function of your rotator cuff. If you enjoy playing golf, your physical therapist will take this into account and can incorporate exercises that activate the muscles you use to swing a golf club.

Your physical therapist may also tell you what your current limitations are. After rotator cuff surgery, you aren’t supposed to lift your arms overhead for at least six weeks. Your physical therapist will measure your improvement and track your progress along the way.

How to decide when it should end

It’s up to you and your physical therapist to decide whether to continue once you’ve reached your functional mobility goals. It can take six to eight weeks for soft tissue to heal, which is why patients are typically advised to do PT for this amount of time after surgery or injury. However, physical therapists are also great counselors and motivators for continuing exercise after injury or surgery to ensure that you’re moving in a way that’s safe for your body to protect it from getting re-injured.

Looking back, I probably would have recovered faster from my injuries if I had done some physical therapy. So, don’t just hit the gym and think you’re going to get back what you lost by yourself — there’s a specialist for that. Go and see one, someone that fits your needs and can work with you while you walk the road to recovery.

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