October has been designated National Physical Therapy Month to raise awareness of the benefits of physical therapy as well as to recognize the vital role professionals in this discipline play in improving patients’ health, function, and overall quality of life.
What exactly are physical therapists and what do they do? According to the American Physical Therapy Association, “Physical therapists are movement experts who improve quality of life through prescribed exercise, hands-on care, and patient education. Physical therapists diagnose and treat individuals of all ages, from newborns to people at the end of life. Many patients have injuries, disabilities, or other health conditions that need treatment, but PTs also care for people who simply want to become healthier and to prevent future problems. Physical therapists examine each person and then develop a treatment plan to improve their ability to move, reduce or manage pain, restore function, and prevent disability. Physical therapists can have a profound effect on people’s lives. They help people achieve fitness goals, regain or maintain their independence, and lead active lives.”
Elaborating on this definition, here are just some of the ways physical therapists can help patients:
An extensive range of treatments and modalities
PTs today have access to an extremely wide variety of therapeutic treatment options, ranging from simple heat or ice, to aquatic therapy, to more advanced modalities such as electrical stimulation, ultrasound, and laser or light therapy for reducing pain and accelerating healing. Some have even begun to utilize state-of-the-art technologies, such as specialized treadmills or robotic exoskeletons, that augment patients’ strengths and abilities while compensating for limitations to help them get back on their feet faster.
Of course, PTs also have extensive knowledge of the various exercises and movement strategies that can help improve patients’ strength, endurance, range of motion, balance, gait, and overall function and mobility, and they can provide expert training on the proper use of any assistive devices patients may require as they progress through treatment. More innovative PT professionals are also drawing upon elements of disciplines such as tai chi and yoga to help improve deficits in balance, stability, coordination, or other areas.
Inpatient and outpatient rehab
The role people most commonly associate with physical therapy is rehabilitation following a debilitating injury, surgery, illness, or prolonged period of immobilization/bed rest. In these circumstances, PT focuses on helping patients regain their prior level of function to the extent possible and getting them back to their daily lives, favorite sports, or other activities. Rehab may involve both inpatient and outpatient phases as well as a home-exercise component so patients can maintain and build upon the gains they achieved in formal therapy.
A relatively new but growing aspect of physical therapy is so-called prehab. Prehab is a form of proactive outpatient therapy that improves strength and function prior to surgery so patients are able to recover and return to normal activities and independence much more rapidly afterward. Patients who take part in a prehab program also have the advantage of knowing exactly what to expect from their post-surgical rehab program because they’ve learned how to perform all the exercises and have already practiced them. In addition, they develop a high degree of comfort and familiarity with the rehab facility and its staff ahead of time.
With the opioid epidemic still exacting a heavy toll across our nation, more and more people are seeking pain-management alternatives that don’t involve the risk of dependence and overdose. PT is not only effective in relieving many forms of pain, but it is also a conservative and completely safe starting point in terms of pain management. Again, PTs have access to many therapies and techniques—ranging from simple ice/heat, to exercises and stretches, to more high-tech technologies such as electrical stimulation or ultrasound—that can be used singly or in combination to alleviate patients’ pain and promote healing of injured tissue.
Delaying or preventing surgery
In some cases, PT can make it possible to delay or prevent certain surgeries. For example, if a patient has an arthritic knee that is causing pain and discomfort when standing and walking, PT to strengthen the supporting musculature around the knee and to improve the patient’s gait mechanics may make it possible to postpone or (depending on the patient’s age, the degree of joint degeneration, and other factors) even avoid knee-replacement surgery.
Last but not least in this far-from-all-inclusive list is providing patient education. From the very beginning of a patient’s inpatient or outpatient rehab program through his or her transition home, this element of a PT’s job pervades all aspects of treatment and helps encourage proper compliance with exercises, prevent injury or reinjury, and promote the best possible long-term outcome