The benefits of physiotherapy for the elderly

Donna Rice had a stabbing pain in her hamstrings. At 65, Rice, who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, had been running for more than 40 years. Even when she was in pain, she didn’t like to stop running. It was key to his social life, his sense of well-being and his overall quality of life.

She rested, stretched and got massages – things she thought she should do. Maybe, she thought, it would be better on its own.

But that was not the case. Even after 5 months things had not improved. Rice knew it was time to see a physical therapist. It’s something she’s noticed more with age.

“Sometimes you can get away with ignoring things, but less so as you get older,” she says.

His therapist prescribed a progressive exercise program specifically designed for his injury. She gradually built up her strength without overloading her body. After a few months of constant work, Rice was back to racing.

Without it, his recovery would have been much more difficult and might not have happened at all. That’s because physical therapists deliver “fitness with clinical precision,” says physical therapist Gene Shirokobrod, DPT, of Elliott City, Maryland.

A good physical therapist doesn’t just ask where it hurts and give you some exercises, says Shirokobrod. They take the time to assess your particular movement patterns and create an individualized plan to help you increase your strength and move better and pain free.

In older people, this can be particularly helpful, as physical therapists can detect problems that may not seem significant, but could lead to larger problems down the road.

As you age, your body changes. You begin to lose more muscle and bone mass and may have difficulty with once-easy tasks like climbing stairs or getting out of your seat. Your sense of balance may begin to deteriorate and you may feel more tired, weak and achy.

“If you help people cope with aches and pains earlier, they are less likely to lose strength and mobility. If they maintain their strength and mobility, they can continue to move and stay active. You can help them stay safe and independent at home,” says physical therapist Abby Bales, DPT, of Reform Physical Therapy in New York.

For example, Rice, the runner from Arizona, sought treatment for her hamstring injury. But she soon discovered a bonus effect of her regular physiotherapy sessions: her balance improved. And with better balance and strength, Rice is less likely to fall.

It’s more important than you think. One in four seniors falls each year, according to the CDC. And every year, falls cause broken bones, head injuries and other problems, especially among the elderly. This can make it much more difficult to move around on your own and live independently, especially as you get older.

“Physiotherapy can make a huge difference from a daily life perspective,” says Rice. “Your whole quality of life revolves around your ability to move around your home and do everyday activities. That’s huge.”

You don’t have to wait until it hurts

You may think that physiotherapy is only necessary after an injury or surgery, such as a fall or knee replacement. However, physiotherapy can help with a wide variety of conditions.

  • Osteoporosis (weak bones). More than half of people over 50 suffer from osteoporosis. Regular physical therapy can improve bone health and decrease bone loss.
  • Osteoarthritis. Your physical therapist can prescribe exercises and treatments that can ease pain and increase your range of motion so you can do more things.
  • Vertigo (dizziness). A specially trained “vestibular physiotherapist” can help you when you have balance problems and dizziness like vertigo, inner ear problem.
  • Neurological conditions. These include diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and multiple sclerosis. Physiotherapy can help improve your ability to perform daily tasks and stay safe. “By working the musculoskeletal and neurological system together, you can improve function at all levels,” says Bales.
  • Cancer. For some types of cancer pain, a physical therapy program can lessen the pain and keep you strong enough to carry on at home and at work. Physiotherapist Cynthia Gormezano Suissa, a survivor of Hodgkin’s lymphoma (a type of cancer), is awaiting a double lung transplant. In her weakened state, she says, it is even more important for her to do her physiotherapy exercises so that she can continue to take care of herself for as long as possible.
  • Incontinence. As people age, it is more common to leak urine or always feel the urge to go. It can be embarrassing, unpleasant and inconvenient, causing you to socialize and exercise less, which could worsen your physical and mental health. Physical therapists with specialized training can teach you how to contract, relax, and coordinate the muscles of the pelvic floor to minimize this problem.

How family and friends can help

It can be difficult to navigate a new physical therapy program for an older loved one. Start by being as supportive as possible, but try not to interfere more than necessary.

If need be, help them choose a physical therapist who understands their goals and physical needs, Bales says. You can also guide them through health insurance or other payment options.

Suggest, but don’t insist, that we go on the first date together, she says. If you go, you can help keep track of their questions and jot down the information provided by the therapist.

Beyond that, you can try gentle reminders to help your loved ones stay accountable and consistent with their PT appointments and exercises. It’s good to ask if they need help with their exercises. If a walk is part of the prescribed program, you might offer to join them. And if transportation is an issue, you can offer to drive them.

But, experts say, there’s a fine line between helping and pushing. Try not to harass or coddle them, as this can sometimes backfire and have the opposite effect.

Where to find a physiotherapist

If you think you or a loved one could benefit from physical therapy, talk to your doctor. They can suggest clinicians who can handle your specific needs. Also ask a friend or colleague if they have any recommendations. The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) offers an online tool to find a physical therapist near you. In some states, you can see a physical therapist without a referral from your doctor.

Check with your health insurance company or APTA for more information.

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