Physical Therapy 101
Doctors recommend physical therapy for a variety of conditions. When prescribed in combination with other treatments, these programs can help speed recovery and are beneficial components of a holistic approach to health.
Physical Therapy Basics
When you have pain, an injury or a chronic condition, regular movement and daily tasks can be difficult. Freedom is restricted, and independence may be lost for a period of time. A rehabilitation program designed to strengthen weak muscles, stretch tight connective tissue and build stamina may be recommended to restore your body and allow you to return to the lifestyle you previously enjoyed.
According to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), these programs have “widespread clinical applications in the restoration, maintenance, and promotion of optimal physical function.” When used alone or as part of a larger treatment approach, therapy for your body promotes:
• Muscle restoration
• Improved tissue function
• Better range of motion
• Stronger balance
These goals are practical and functional, and the programs include many different techniques to promote recovery. Some therapists provide general help for common problems. Others specialize in targeted treatments for specific conditions.
Conditions Requiring Rehabilitation
It’s common to associate physical treatment programs with recovery from serious injuries or surgery, but there are many conditions for which these programs show promise. You may not realize your health issues can be helped with a physical approach. Even some apparently simple conditions often accepted as inevitable can get better with the right combination of treatments.
Programs for strength and movement may be prescribed for:
• Chronic diseases
• Chronic pain
• Concomitant effects of cancer, heart disease and similar ailments
• Congenital diseases
• General pain management
• Inflammatory conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis
• Nerve pain
• Neuromuscular disorders
• Overuse injuries, including carpal tunnel syndrome
• Pain in specific areas of the body
• Post-surgical recovery
• Spinal cord injury
• Sports injuries
• Stroke recovery
• Traumatic injury
Doctors will likely bring up the subject of a physical treatment program in the event of trauma or an acute condition, but don’t hesitate to ask about what such a program could do for other issues. Chronic pain can be especially limiting and is all the more frustrating given it tends to be an “invisible” condition other people have a hard time understanding. If you’re suffering from any problems making it hard to get the most out of life, starting a treatment program with a qualified practitioner of physical medicine could give you the tools to reclaim your freedom.
What to Expect
If your doctor determines a physical treatment program is right for you, he or she will refer you to a therapist with the proper training to work with your condition. You can also look for your own therapist on the APTA website or get recommendations from family and friends. You must be comfortable with the practitioner you choose, because you’ll be working with the same person for an average of six to 12 sessions. Select someone with whom you can maintain an easy partnership and clear communication throughout the duration of your program.
On your first visit, the therapist will:
• Take your medical history
• Ask questions about your condition
• Assess the severity of the problem
• Perform tests to determine your current level of strength and range of motion
• Look for the root cause of your pain if it’s unknown
These evaluations form the basis of a treatment program designed specifically for you. This often involves more than one type of physical treatment, and you may need assistance, such as a wheelchair or crutches, to help you move around until you become stronger.
You may be given exercises to do on your own a certain number of times per day, and it’s important to follow these instructions. Your therapist can modify the program over time, increasing the difficulty of the exercises or adding weights as you get stronger.
Types of Treatments
Physical medicine is able to treat so many different conditions because of its versatility. Therapists know how to design programs combining the right types of treatments to aid healing and move you toward recovery.
Manual therapy, also called bodywork, is a common treatment. Massage, mobilization and manipulation are used to address pain and tension in muscles, connective tissue and joints. Some practitioners are skilled in decongestive lymphatic drainage, a massage technique to reduce inflammation by addressing problems with the flow of lymph fluid.
Other treatments often used include ultrasound, electrical stimulation and low-level laser therapy to promote healing in muscles and connective tissue. Functional electrical stimulation may be used to improve muscle function after an injury.
Exercise is part of many physical treatment programs. Your therapist may prescribe stretches, strength training, walking, light cardiovascular exercise or water exercises to address and correct physical limitations.
Benefits of Working with a Physical Therapist
Once you begin working with a specialist to improve your physical condition, you may experience:
• Less stress on joints and tension in muscles
• Increased strength, stability and stamina
• Reduced pain and inflammation
• Better blood and lymph flow
• Greater range of motion
• Easier management of chronic conditions
• More daily independence
Following a treatment program may also make it possible to avoid surgery in certain cases and can reduce the need for strong painkillers, saving you from unwanted side effects.
Since both pain and injury can cause imbalances in the body, your therapist will work to address these issues and the subconscious corrections you’ve been making to compensate. This promotes proper healing and can prevent permanent damage in the case of severe injuries or trauma.
The type of therapy you need and how many sessions your doctor recommends will vary depending on the nature of your condition. Stay in close contact with your doctor, your physical therapist and other members of your health team throughout the treatment program to ensure you get the full benefit from every session. It might seem difficult at times, but sticking with your schedule can help you make a full recovery or manage a chronic condition and provide a better quality of life.