What Can Physical Therapy Do For Me?

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Physical therapy (PT) is a proven non-surgical treatment for spine-related pain caused by spondylosis (spinal arthritis), degenerative disc disease, whiplash and other disorders. PT is often part of a patient’s multidisciplinary treatment approach that may include medications and spinal injections. Furthermore, active and passive types of physical therapy may be part of post-operative recovery.

Back and neck pain are two of the most common spinal problems people experience. In fact, upwards of 80% of the American population will experience back pain at some point during their lives. Considering that, at some point you may ask what PT can do for you and if the time and effort invested is worth it.

What is Physical Therapy?

Physical Therapy (PT) is considered a conservative treatment method addressing the treatment, healing and prevention of injuries and disabilities. PT focuses primarily, but not solely, on pain relief, promoting healing, and restoring function and movement associated with injury. Other areas within physical therapy are ergonomic (body mechanics) training, fitness/ wellness, and especially education and prevention.

physical therapist provides treatment to a man with low back painPhysical therapy focuses on many aspects of spine care, such as reducing back or neck pain, healing soft tissues, restoring physical function, ergonomics training, and spinal injury prevention. Photo Source: 123RF.com.

What can a Physical Therapy program do for me that I cannot do on my own?

Many patients may think that they know how to properly exercise, manage their pain and rehabilitate themselves. I have commonly been given explanations from patients for why they do not need therapy - for example, "I have had this before and I know what works for me" or "I know what is causing this, because my neighbor had the same thing so I will just do what she did" and attempt to manage themselves.

A Physical Therapist is a specialist skilled and educated specifically in proper rehabilitation. We are continually educated as to management for different dysfunctions, differentiation of one dysfunction/injury from another and work closely with the referring physician in the development of a rehabilitation program specifically designed for each individual. The other important aspect to remember with physical therapy is that each individual is different.

We all have different types of bodies, different patterns of movement, alignments and habits. A physical therapist, along with their trained staff, monitors each individual and attempts to correct improper movements, alignments and habits.

Most importantly with therapy comes education. Because of healthcare guidelines and reimbursement changes, your physician may not have the time needed to explain exactly what your injury/dysfunction/disability is and why/how it occurred. Your therapist is specialized in this and many times is the person who will educate you about the specifics of your problem and what the course of action will be to correct it and hopefully prevent it from reoccurring. PT focuses on education, correction and prevention.

How long is it going to take?

This is such a popular question. It seems that everyone has to have timelines, which is understandable because we all have lives to lead. Your physical therapist is aware that rehabilitation can be an imposition. I explain that because each person is different, rates of healing are different. I can usually get an idea of your progress within two weeks. I explain to my patients that even though they have other things to do, rehab is important. Although rehab takes time, it also took time for the injury to progress to the point of causing pain or contirbuting to injury.

Physical therapists want their patients to understand that although we are here to teach and rehabilitation them, their Home Program it is their responsibility. The Home Program is a major contributing factor to how quickly the patient recovers.

Who benefits from physical therapy?

Many and all can benefit from physical therapy. As an active therapist, I work out and always observe others. I very rarely come across individuals with perfect body mechanics, training techniques or movement patterns. This is where wellness comes into play. Typically, the most appropriate patients are those who have been in accidents (work, auto, or falls), athletes with overstress injuries, patients with arthritis, pre- and post-operative patients, and people with general deconditioning or strains.

What will I have to do in physical therapy?

PT generally encompasses pain relief, strength and flexibility training, proper postural alignment, regaining movement or range of motion, improving and correcting posture, endurance training, relaxation and stress relieving techniques, balance and coordination training, proper walking, education, safety awareness and development/implementation of a home exercise program.

Remember that each individual is different, so each rehab/physical therapy experience and program is different. Be patient with yourself, your physician and your physical therapy staff. Healing takes time, diligence and compliance. If you think you may be a candidate for physical therapy, speak to your physician or to a therapist. We never will say "no" to questions.

Commentary by: Stephen E. Heim, MD

It is important to realize that physical therapy for the spine is beneficial in decreasing the level of discomfort as well as increasing the level of activity the patient is able to tolerate. This is important for patients attempting to avoid surgery as well as those patients who have had surgery and are attempting to restore their activity level. In many regards surgery on the spine allows the patient to be more "rehabitatable".

The overall goal of surgery and rehabilitation is to limit the degree of symptoms and improve function. Many patients are able to avoid surgery by proceeding through a thorough spinal rehabilitation program.....while those undergoing spine surgery obtain the best outcome by proceeding through a formal rehabilitation program postoperatively.

Updated on: 09/10/19
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How Physical Therapy Treats Failed Back Surgery Syndrome
Stephen E. Heim, MD
Co-Medical Director
Neuro-Spine Center
Central DuPage Hospital
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