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The Benefits of Post-Op Physical Therapy


By Xavier Thompson, ATC

Is post-op physical therapy necessary? Are you scheduled to have surgery? While surgery may repair damaged tissues, some of the most important work to ensure that you stay healthy occurs after you leave the operating room. Whether you are young or old, an elite athlete or a weekend warrior, it is important to involve the appropriate healthcare professionals in order to reach your full potential and reduce your chance of future injury. In order to improve your range of motion, strength and general function after surgery, physical therapy is an absolute must.

Although it may seem as though surgery should fix all of your problems, surgery itself actually creates some specific problems that a qualified medical professional can help you with. After surgery, a patient typically faces a period of immobilization in a device such as a sling, walking boot, cast, etc. This time period leads to further compensations of other tissues and altered movement patterns. Prolonged immobilization also leads to decreased ability of tissues and joints to move properly. If these issues are not addressed, they can lead to further pain and dysfunctions in both the short and long-term.

Even without a period of immobilization, the time before surgery causes its own issues. The primary reasons that someone has to get surgery in the first place include pain and/or a loss of function. That could be an inability to walk, run or even reach overhead. Years, months or even just weeks of avoiding activities that cause pain or modifying activities can cause the body to become accustomed to altered movement patterns or develop imbalances in strength and flexibility. While surgery may fix the initial cause of pain or dysfunction, such as repairing the rotator cuff muscles or removing the meniscus, it will not fix any of the body’s adaptations on its own. A common misconception is that surgery and a subsequent return to activities will be enough for a patient. But without targeted intervention to address all of the problems related to the injury (i.e. loss of strength or motion or incorrect muscle activation patterns) a patient may never be completely pain or injury-free.

If your surgeon does not require you to attend physical therapy, make sure to ask them why and how physical therapy could help. Ask them why they do not recommend physical therapy or how you are going to address issues such as a loss of motion or strength on your own. A common misconception is that by clearing a patient to resume daily activities will in turn get them back to their normal strength levels. If a patient has weak glutes after a hip surgery, walking every day will not improve the weak lateral hip muscles. This weakness can lead to pain in a litany of other locations on the body. At the end of the day, the biggest advocate for your healthcare is you! Make sure you have the information you need to keep you off the operating table in the future.

The goal of post-operative physical therapy is to evaluate a patient’s deficiencies and take them to a level that they cannot reach on their own. For an elderly patient, this may mean helping them dance again after a knee replacement. For a young athlete, this may mean returning them to the basketball court after a shoulder surgery. Don’t sell yourself short- make sure you invest in yourself and attend post-operative physical therapy. If you have questions about how physical therapy can help you, CALL LSTC at 703-450-4300.

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