Road to Recovery — The Assessment
The first step in any effective treatment process is a thorough evaluation. Expect our therapists to ask detailed questions about how the injury came about, but also do some expert sleuth work (since the injured area may be a result and not the starting point of poor movement). We may be able to reduce the pain quickly, but that will only be temporary unless we address the root cause of the problem.
Although patients may come to see us for a variety of causes, low back aches, knee pain, and overuse injuries are among the most common complaints. Following a thorough investigation, our therapists will begin to lay out a treatment plan, which will commonly include passive modalities (ice, heat, laser therapy, and electrical stimulation to name a few). But more often than not, manual therapy— a term that includes many methods of restoring tissue function like massage, stretching, and exercise — is the foundation for the assessment and treatment of an injury. Just don’t anticipate jumping (or running, swimming, or lifting) back into activity right away. The average length of care for musculoskeletal ( bone and muscle injuries) can be anywhere from four to six weeks.
Steps Along the Way — The Treatment
Best for: Any injury
This hands-on approach separates physical therapists from other health practitioners. Although manual therapy may refer to many things, our therapists usually employ common tactics like stretching, massage, and hands-on strengthening exercises to reeducate the body into proper movement and mechanics. Manual therapy is a prime method to removing movement restrictions and helping patients move better. Manual therapy should form the backbone of any treatment plan, not modalities like ice and electric stimulation.
Best for: Injuries involving inflammation and swelling
Ice can be a major component of injury treatment. By constricting blood vessels after application, ice is an effective way to reduce and even prevent inflammation immediately following an injury. Cold therapy can also leave the joint more mobile and enhance manual therapy. Although it’s difficult to nail down the most effective protocol, applying cold packs to inflamed areas has been shown to significantly reduce swelling in soft tissue injuries .
Best for: Injuries involving muscular spasms and tightness
Applying heat has been shown to decrease pain and increase mobility after some injuries — mainly those involving soft tissue like muscles, tendons, and ligaments. By making the tissue more pliable, our therapists can better stretch the affected area. Note: Heat is just one tool to help us be more effective, it shouldn’t be the main focus of a treatment plan.
Best for: Connective tissue injuries
By using sound waves (undetectable to the human ear) to generate heat deep in the body, ultrasound therapy can help loosen up tissues in preparation for manual therapy or exercise. How it works: Therapists use a wand (unfortunately not the magic kind!) to apply the sound waves directly — and safely — to the skin. Ultrasound has also been shown to increase ligament-healing speed in our furry counterparts, though more studies are needed to show whether the same holds true for us .
Best for: Muscular or connective tissue injuries
Laser therapy uses specific wavelengths of light to stimulate healing (well below the skin so you don’t feel a thing). Best-case scenario: The treatment can help reduce inflammation, muscle fatigue, and pain . It can also allow our therapists to move the affected joint around easier with less discomfort.
Best for: Disc herniation
When we stand, our spine is consistently bearing our weight making recovery from back pain difficult. Traction involves separating vertebrae to allow more space for nerves and less compression on disc cartilage. Some research shows that traction can be effective for reducing pain and enhancing quality of life in patients with a herniated lumbar disc . And since it doesn’t involve going under the knife, this can be an effective treatment option for those who can’t afford a long recovery.
Functional Electrical Stimulation
Best for: Restoring muscular strength
Electrical stimulation, also referred to as ESTIM, is a common treatment option to restore muscular function following a traumatic injury. By applying a minor but steady electrical stimulus, our therapists can cause contractions from muscles that may otherwise remain dormant. This leads to restoring proper movement and function sooner than relying on exercise alone. While ESTIM can’t restore movement in every case, research shows it can speed recovery following ACL and total knee replacement surgery over the course of a few weeks. Additional research confirms the use of ESTIM as an effective treatment option to restore function in hemiplegic patients (those with one side of the body paralyzed) .
Best for: Any injury to stay healthy after treatment
It may sound obvious, but exercise is a go-to strategy to treat and prevent pain. But these aren’t just any old run of the mill exercises — they’re hand-picked to help patients move better by strengthening targeted muscles and addressing any muscular imbalances that may exist. Also, keep in mind that many injuries can crop up (or recur) from a sedentary and repetitive lifestyle. (Think: hunching over the computer or obsessing over that Instagram feed.) By performing any sort regular exercise, those with even the most sedentary day-to-day can avoid common nagging aches and pains.
Ready to get checked out? Many of our patients are referred to us by their primary care physicians after an initial checkup. Additionally, new state-by-state direct access laws now allow those in pain to head straight to their local therapist (check your state guidelines for specifics).
Disclaimer: Remember that none of this information should substitute professional medical advice. Always check with one of our therapists first once those aches and pains arise!
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