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How physical therapy can help seniors

Article By: Dale J. Buchberger, PT, DC, CSCS, DACBSP

Physical therapy not only helps individuals recover from an injury or accident, it can help control the pain of many age related problems such as arthritis and fatigue. After a fall many senior citizens require assistance with improving their balance, flexibility, strength, and range of motion. The possibility of losing independence, pain in performing everyday tasks, and losing function of limbs and muscles are all motivators for consulting a physical therapist. Physical therapy can greatly improve mobility and motion, two things that older adults, as well as people with chronic conditions, often struggle with.

There are many benefits of physical therapy for the elderly. Not only is it great for providing a safe environment for conditioning, it also helps strengthen and improve balance. 1 in 4 Americans currently age 65 will live to 90 and a physical therapist can help you stay fit during that time period, improving your quality of life. Maintaining our desired level of activity gets more challenging as we age because it is part of the natural aging process to experience decreasing flexibility, strength, and/or balance. Physical therapists understand how the body works and how to get it moving again. One of the most important things a physical therapist can do for older adults is to instruct them on ways to restore flexibility, strength, and balance.

Not all aging adults need to spend a great deal of time in hospitals. Nor should those elderly persons with limiting or uncomfortable conditions have to avoid physical activity. Geriatric physical therapy is a proven avenue for elderly patients of all levels of function to build confidence, improve balance and strength, and stay active. There are many additional advantages to physical therapy and you may be a candidate for receiving it.

Falling is one of the biggest risks facing the elderly, because it often leads to hip fractures, which can result in a rapid decline in general health. Falling is such a critical problem with seniors that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that a third of all people over the age of 65 fall each year, making it the leading cause of injury in the elderly. Hundreds of thousands of older people each year are hospitalized with hip fractures. Most people who have fallen stay in the hospital for at least a week, and it has been estimated that approximately 20% die within a year of the injury. Many of the other 80% never return to their pre-injury level of function.

Gradual deconditioning of specific muscle groups in the legs can be a major cause of increased fall risk in the elderly. The main muscle groups are the quadriceps in the front of the thigh and gluteal muscles in the back and side of the buttock. The single easiest way to strengthen both of these muscle groups is to first perform a “bridging” exercise. Laying either on the floor or in bed with the knees bent, slowly lift your buttock off the floor then lower slowly and repeat as many as 30 times. The second exercise is called a “wall sit”. Find a clear area of wall space in your home. Wear sneakers with good soles. Place your back against the wall and slowly slide down until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Hold for as long as 30 seconds. Stand up and repeat. Be sure to check with your doctor before you begin the wall squat, as this is a challenging exercise.

Many people are familiar with physical therapy as a treatment after a serious accident or injury. However, its usefulness extends beyond those specific conditions. According to the National Institutes of Health, physical therapy is good for improving strength, balance, mobility and overall fitness. Those are factors that all aging people could benefit from, as each contributes to the physical ability of maintaining independence for a longer period of time.

Physical therapy helps seniors stay strong and maintain a life of independence and productivity for as long as possible. If you feel that a physical therapist would be helpful to you, check with your insurance provider to verify covered benefits. Many policies have limits or caps on medical benefits. Most insurance companies continue to require a doctor’s “physical therapy order”. Do your homework and choose a physical therapist you feel comfortable with. Physical therapy will help you stay strong, and it’s usually worth your investment in time to take the advice and assistance of a qualified licensed physical therapist. Remember that prevention is easier and less costly than treatment.

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