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October is National Physical Therapy Month, and this year's celebration comes at a momentous and challenging time for health care. We've written recently about some of the effects of the opioid epidemic, but one of its largest public health challenges is the ease at which opioid dependence can afflict people with no prior substance abuse issues. Physical therapy distinguishes itself as a crucial alternative to these pain medications that strengthens the body in addition to providing long-term pain relief.
Physical therapy is a complex discipline that can provide many benefits and be utilized as part of a recovery or rehabilitation program for any number of conditions. As an ongoing, gradual approach to treating numerous conditions, physical therapy can fit into a post-acute recovery plan or your daily routine.
With such a variety of benefits, it's clear that physical therapy has something to offer anyone, and this is possibly its greatest strength: adaptability. Physical therapy programs are designed to meet each individual patient's needs, and this plan is created alongside the patient. If you're rehabilitating an injury or dealing with chronic pain, you can be involved in your recovery in a way that increases your independence. Even before treatment begins, the planning process helps give back a sense of autonomy that may have been lost due to an injury or chronic condition.
Exercise: The basic core of any physical therapy program, exercise is when physical stress is applied to the body in a way that improves strength, range of motion, and flexibility. Exercise can be active or passive.
Passive exercise only requires that you relax while a physical therapist applies stress. This is common with various forms of stretching.
Soft-Tissue Mobilization Therapy: Injuries to the soft tissue are common. This tissue surrounding and supporting organs and other bodily structures includes tendons, ligaments, fascia, skin, fat, and muscles. Considering how much of our bodies are made up by soft tissue, it's unsurprising that these injuries are common, and occur in many different ways.
Soft tissue injuries include:
Mobilization therapy for soft tissue involves manual techniques similar to massage: pushing, pulling, and kneading the muscles, ligaments, and tendons, and nerves. Done correctly, this can reduce pain, increase functionality and range of motion, and break down adhesions, painful scar tissue resulting from the body's attempts to heal a soft tissue injury.
Joint Mobilization Therapy: A subset of soft-tissue mobilization, this typically involves passive moving of joints to increase their range of motion, although active exercises to aid joint mobilization are available.
Electrical Stimulation: The use of electric current to manage pain or deliver medication into injured areas of the body. TENS, or transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, sends an electrical current into injured muscles or tissue that disrupts the pain signals sent to the brain.
Hydrotherapy: A variety of physical therapy methods utilize the properties of water, such as its stable temperature and controllable resistance, for pain relief and physical rehabilitation.
Aquatic therapy involves treatments and exercises that make use of the pressure and resistance the body encounters while submerged in water to strengthen muscles, improve balance, and increase range of motion. Due to the buoyancy of water and the the stability of water pressure, this is particularly useful for patients with movement hindered by injury or inflammation, for whom the use of weights might be detrimental.
Whirlpool baths submerge a patient in hot or cold water that flows around an injured body part to improve circulation, reduce inflammation, and keep wounds clean while healing. They can also be a location for aquatic therapy.
Kinesiology Tape: A flexible fabric tape applied to the skin in specific directions that stretches and pulls during regular motion. It has a variety of uses, including reducing pain, managing bruising or swelling, and facilitating or inhibiting movement.
Occupational Therapy: A related discipline, occupational therapy focuses on helping you perform day-to-day tasks, tailored to your specific workplace and home environment. It focuses on making common daily activities and motions easier through assistive technology and environmental adjustment.
You don't need to wait for old age or injury to benefit from physical therapy. The techniques and exercises utilized by therapists can be added to your daily routine to both build and relax muscle, helping prevent future injury.
Stretching: Don't neglect stretching! Most of us have jobs that require sitting for long periods, which tightens leg muscles. This can easily lead to injury during not just recreational activities like sports, but normal daily activities. Adding stretching routines to your day will relax these muscles, increasing range of motion and reducing tension.
Special areas of focus include:
Knee Stretches: The most commonly injured joint across all age groups is the knee. Extended periods of sitting, as at work and driving, can tighten the muscles that flex this joint, making them more susceptible to injury.
Consider: calf, hamstring, quadriceps, and ilitotibial band stretches.
Back Stretches: Back pain is the leading cause of disability worldwide, affecting 80% of people at some point in life. The back is a complex structure of joints, ligaments, muscles, and bones, and the causes of back pain or injury are diverse.
Consider: side, abdominal, hamstring, gluteus, and back rotator streches.
Exercising: Regular exercise to strengthen muscles is a major component of physical therapy. Unlike the often high-impact cardio work and weight training we picture when thinking of exercise, physical therapy exercises are less intense and more centered on steady, controlled motions to strengthen muscle.
Hip Strengthening Exercises: The hips are large, but bear much of the body's weight during activities as diverse and ordinary as walking, running, sitting, standing, and climbing stairs.
Consider: hip squeezes (using a ball), leg raises, therapy band stretches and walks, and ball bridges.
Back and Core Strengthening Exercises: The third most-common reason for doctor visits, back pain is most often mechanical in nature. Strengthening the back and core together helps improve spine mobility and relax the many muscles that connect in this area.
Consider: crunches, planks, lunges, bridges, and press ups.
Posture: You probably haven't thought about your posture since the last time your parents chastised you for it -- we haven't either! But maintaining correct posture allows you to maintain positions, whether moving or at rest, that put the least strain on your body. Correct posture provides numerous benefits, such as:
Physical therapy is about independence: maintaining, restoring, and building autonomy. It's about improving the quality and ease of everyday life. But it doesn't have to be useful only in a worst-case scenario. The methods and exercises developed by therapists can be adapted to your daily routine. The lessons of physical therapy can be tailored to every aspect of your your life.