The Power of Physical Therapy
3 min. read
For athletes, going to physical therapy seems like a rite of passage following an injury. Few have never witnessed the improvements that stretching and strengthening exercises, led by a licensed physical therapist, have on one’s ability to get back in the game.
Yet “normal” people can also reap the benefits of physical therapy after injuring the muscles that help us perform tasks often taken for granted, such as standing up, walking, turning our heads or lifting our arms. And as evidence emerges that physical therapy helps improve the quality of life for people suffering from the pain associated with musculoskeletal or neurologic injuries or conditions, the demand for physical therapy continues to increase.
That’s why the American Physical Therapy Association reports that more than 184,000 physical therapists are licensed in the United States. Furthermore, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the number of licensed physical therapists will grow by 36 percent between 2012 and 2022 – much faster, the Bureau says, than the average for all other occupations.
“When we first see patients, we’re looking for the least invasive way to help them overcome their injury or pain,” said Jose Mena, M.D., a Baptist Health Medical Group interventional physiatrist with Baptist Center for Spine Care. “Usually physical therapy can help patients, so they don’t need surgery.”
Dr. Mena says that many of his patients suffer from pain or mobility problems associated with muscle strain of the back, rotator cuff tears in their shoulders or injuries to the soft tissue of the knee, most often the shock-absorber-like mechanism known as the meniscus. Degeneration from normal aging or arthritis also leads people to seek relief. He notes that obesity and sedentary lifestyles set the stage for injury and degenerative conditions.
“Our goal in treating patients using physical therapy is to strengthen the musculoskeletal structures within the body and prevent re-injury,” he said. “But we must also look at what may be causing those weaknesses and prescribe exercises that help people get active after their condition improves.”
Physical therapist Vivian Fonticiella from Miami Orthopedics & Sports Medicine Institute Outpatient Rehabilitation Center in West Kendall sees her role as an educator more than anything else.
“With physical therapy, we teach our patients exercises that serve as tools to help them live their lives, so they regain their independence,” she said. “We instruct patients how to properly and safely exercise on their own to strengthen those areas that have been weakened by injury, degeneration or lack of exercise.”
Additionally, both Dr. Mena and Ms. Fonticiella endorse one-on-one manual therapy. In this technique, the therapist uses his or her hands to move the patient’s muscles or joints to help restore mobility until the patient can strengthen those structures through exercise.
“Manual therapy is evidence-based, which means it has been proven effective in rehabilitating patients,” Dr. Mena said. “Passive therapies such as ice, heat and massage are tools used to promote healing, but the real work is in the exercises patients are shown how to do.”
“I tell my patients from the beginning that they will need to continue the exercises I teach them beyond the course of their physical therapy sessions,” Ms. Fonticiella said.
Dr. Mena adds that physical therapy itself usually lasts from three to eight weeks, and patients must commit to their home exercise program for optimum results. “Nearly half of patients will re-injure themselves within one year without the proper strengthening and rehabilitation of the structures,” he said.
Dr. Mena and Ms. Fonticiella admit that lifestyle factors, such as being overweight or obese and lack of exercise, are contributing to the rise of physical therapy as a treatment for musculoskeletal injuries and degeneration. But, they say that physical therapy leads to marked improvement for those people who closely follow their doctor’s orders and physical therapist’s exercise instructions.
Dr. Mena summarizes physical therapy’s main benefit this way: “For many patients, physical therapy may be all that’s needed to treat injury, restore mobility and avoid surgery.”
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