As a clinic owner or physical therapist, you provide a big resource to your community that goes beyond helping people recover from injury or surgery. But what is physical therapy’s role in prevention and wellness? And are you reaching all the populations in your area that could benefit from physical therapy?
“It’s a challenge for physical therapists in private practice who are out there wondering, ‘How do I meet patients where they are? How do I meet patients’ needs that are present in the community?’” says Brett Rivers, a physical therapist and vice president of operations at EXOS Physical Therapy and Sports Medicine.
He suggests building a relationship with area primary care providers who are on the front lines of community health to find out the common diagnoses or comorbidities local patients have. “Those are diagnoses that go along with or will compound other pains, problems, and functional deficits patients incur over their lifetime,” he says.
Each community will have unique populations, but physical therapy’s role in these conditions can have an especially beneficial impact.
Patients with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes may experience nerve pain, especially in their hands or feet, and physical therapy may help them maintain and improve their mobility. “They might have peripheral neuropathy, which affects their balance, gait function, and different areas of their life,” says Rivers. Neuropathy can also lead to neuropathic ulcers, and patients experiencing these issues may require physical therapy modalities for wound healing, Rivers adds.
Physical therapy is also a good course of action for patients who have been diagnosed as prediabetic and are at risk for developing Type 2 diabetes or those who are facing weight concerns. “It ties into obesity because obesity is a predisposition to diabetes, which is a predisposition to neuropathy,” says Greg Perry, senior vice president at EXOS Physical Therapy and Sports Medicine.
That doesn’t mean physical therapists will be a primary source for educating patients on managing blood sugar, Rivers says. Instead, they’ll be working with them to troubleshoot and overcome any issues that prevent them from being active, like knee or back pain, and find ways to improve their strength, flexibility, and agility.
For patients battling arthritis, a physical therapy regimen could stave off the progression of the disease. “There are so many joint protection techniques, strengthening exercises, and range of motion strategies that we can do to improve an arthritic patient’s life,” Rivers explains.
The problem: Many patients with joint pain halt exercise because it hurts. Physical therapists can help these patients increase activity by modifying traditional exercises and daily movements so that they can be performed pain-free. Plus, ongoing therapeutic modalities can reduce chronic discomfort.
Physical therapy for seniors will improve bone and joint health, Rivers says, which helps keep patients active as they age. The treatment plan for each individual will vary, but maintaining strength is often at the forefront.
For seniors who are on the go, Rivers notes a common trend; they place an emphasis on light cardio with bike riding, swimming, or walking. “All that stuff is fantastic,” he says. “But they sort of put the weights down and they think, ‘Well that’s yesteryear.’ Now more than ever is when they should be picking up the weights and doing light strength training as part of their typical exercise regimen.”
Physical therapy can help seniors maintain a calculated exercise routine by addressing muscle weaknesses or imbalances, helping patients maintain independent living situations for longer, even when facing dementia. For seniors experiencing early stages of dementia, physical therapy can assist with balance, gait, and functional mobility to improve daily living. Research published in BBA Molecular Basis of Disease also found that exercise could protect aging populations from cognitive decline.
Physical therapy has large applications for pelvic health in all genders, Perry says, whether for bladder incontinence, chronic constipation, or pain with intercourse. Pelvic floor physical therapy is also often prescribed to treat underlying myofascial pelvic pain related to conditions like endometriosis. However, pelvic physical therapy requires specialized training.
“If you have someone who has the training or would like to go get the training, it’s a huge population to go after because the treatment can be life altering,” says Perry.
The general population can also benefit from physical therapy by taking a proactive approach to functional health, rather than just seeking treatment for when pain arises or after incurring an injury. Athletes use physical therapy proactively to maintain or improve their ability to compete.
“Their body is their line of work,” Perry explains. “It’s their machine that produces their paycheck. So they’re going to do everything they can to make sure it can go out the next day and perform.” Anyone who’s a recreational runner, triathlete, or golfer — not just pro athletes — will get those repetitive stress or overuse injuries or develop muscle imbalances, he adds. These problems can impede their ability to do the things they love and to stay active.
The same goes for people who aren’t necessarily getting a lot of exercise. Even sitting at a desk or performing a movement on a job can, over time, cause an issue. Physical therapy can intervene and ward off pain or immobility. That’s why Perry recommends physical therapists reach out to everyday folks before they develop problems.
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