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Physical therapy is an integral part of recovery for orthopedic care
October 22, 2020

All month long, we’ve been honoring National Physical Therapy Month by educating our readers about how physical therapy works and the many ways it can benefit you. In the third newsletter of our series, we offer a brief overview of the crucial role that physical therapy frequently plays in the management of orthopedic problems.

Orthopedics is a branch of medicine that addresses issues related to the musculoskeletal system, which includes the bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, and muscles. Issues that develop in these parts of the body are usually due to a traumatic incident, overuse, or natural bodily changes, and they can be treated in a number of different ways. The most effective orthopedic care requires several important components, and physical therapy is considered an integral facet at many stages of the treatment process.

With or without surgery, physical therapy is typically involved

When most people hear the word ‘orthopedics,’ the first thing that comes to mind is often an orthopedic surgeon. But while surgery may be recommended for severe and/or long–term injuries and conditions—especially for very active athletes—it is absolutely not necessary in all cases. Treatment approaches for orthopedic injuries include both conservative management strategies (like medications, injections, and physical and occupational therapy) as well as more invasive options like surgery.

The main reason that physical therapy is a core component of orthopedics and why the two overlap so much is that they both work towards the same overall goals. When a patient suffers from an orthopedic injury, certain parts of their musculoskeletal system are disrupted, which will lead to pain and a limited ability to function normally. The goal of both physical therapy and orthopedics is to address and fix these problems within the musculoskeletal system so the patient can go on to function fully once again.

Physical therapy can therefore be utilized in a few ways to address an orthopedic injury:

  • A patient experiences an orthopedic injury and goes directly to a physical therapist
  • A patient gets injured and sees an orthopedic physician (orthopedist) who then refers the patient to a physical therapist
  • The orthopedist recommends surgery for the patient, and then prescribes a course of physical therapy prior to the procedure (“prehabilitation”)
  • The orthopedist recommends surgery and prescribes physical therapy as part of the post–surgical rehabilitation program

How a physical therapist addresses the patient’s orthopedic injury depends on the injury present and at what stage treatment begins, but most treatment programs share a number of similarities. For example, all treatment programs are based on an initial evaluation of each patient for strength, flexibility, balance, posture, and several other physical measures that will provide a clearer picture of their condition for the physical therapist. From there, the therapist will develop a sense of the goals the patient would like to achieve then shapes treatment around their injury, abilities, and goals.

If physical therapy is initiated exclusive of surgery, therapists will aim to improve strength, flexibility, and functioning through various exercises, pain–relieving interventions, and hands–on techniques from the therapist. A primary goal is always to avoid surgery, but it may be necessary for patients that fail to improve or have severe injuries. If this is the case, the treatment program will either prepare a patient for what’s to come after the procedure is completed or help speed up the recovery process and bring the patient back to full strength as quickly and safely as possible. Once again, it’s all about correcting any musculoskeletal problems and rebalancing the body, so that every patient can move and function normally after the procedure.

Returning to pre–injury fitness levels

Another goal of physical therapy for orthopedic conditions is to help each patient return to their prior level of physical activity. For those who were actively involved in sports or a regular fitness regimen, this will typically require targeted functional training that mimics the movements and patterns involved in the particular activity. Returning to these levels can be challenging, especially when surgery is involved, but it serves as the guiding principle of all physical therapy–based strategies. And through dedication and commitment to the prescribed management program, most patients can expect to eventually reach their pre–injury capabilities once again.

Certain physical therapists actually specialize in orthopedic care and work exclusively with orthopedic surgeons, but most physical therapists are capable of treating the wide range of orthopedic injuries. Therefore, if you’re currently affected by an orthopedic injury of any type, there’s a strong chance that physical therapy will play a major role in your recovery. To reduce your chances of needing surgery, see a physical therapist first, and fast, and see for yourself what a personalized path to orthopedic care can do for you.