Physical therapy is a healthcare specialty that helps patients with medical conditions or injuries that affect their ability to move and function. Through exercise, manual therapy, and other modalities, physical therapy reduces pain, increases strength, and improves function and mobility.
You might expect to work with a physical therapist to help you recover from an operation. But did you know you can also take a proactive approach improve your outcome and increase your chance of a smooth recovery after surgery?
Physical therapy before surgery, or prehabilitation, can be beneficial for patients undergoing a variety of surgical procedures. Keep reading to learn more about the benefits of “prehab” to determine if it is right for you.
1. Stronger Muscles and Tissues
Physical therapy is one way to prepare the body for surgery. Any surgery, regardless of how minor, is stressful on the body. You can even compare surgery to another intense physical activity—like a 5K race. If you go into the race without the proper training, it’s going to be more difficult to complete.
As the American College of Surgeons confirms, “Generally, the more fit and active you are going into a surgical procedure, the more likely you are to retain a higher level of function after.” Your physical therapist helps you increase muscle mass and physical stamina, so you are in the best condition to tolerate surgery and tackle recovery.
2. Less Muscle Loss
Muscle atrophy is the thinning or loss of muscle tissue which occurs as a result of not using the muscles enough. It happens for a variety of reasons including injury or disease. It only takes a few weeks to lose muscle from inactivity.
Physical therapy prior to surgery is going to make you stronger and help you get moving faster. The quicker you are mobile after surgery; you are less likely to experience muscle loss. After surgery, physical therapy is an effective way to rebuild muscle loss as part of your recovery.
3. Shorter Hospital Stay
Muscle atrophy is just one issue that keeps patients in the hospital after surgery. Patients must meet certain criteria before they can be discharged. Typically, that means the patient must have the ability to safely transfer in and out of a bed, safely walk a minimum distance, as well as complete basic self-care activities with minimal to no assistance. Balance problems can also prolong the patient’s hospital stay and necessitate transfer to an acute care or inpatient rehabilitative facility.
Physical therapy before surgery may help patients avoid common complications and rehab stays to go home sooner than later. Research shows individuals who had joint replace surgery, the patients who received physical therapy before the procedure recovered more quickly and required less therapy after surgery.
4. Pain Reduction
Pain reduction after surgery is another benefit of preoperative physical therapy. Physical therapy to reduce inflammation and increase circulation in the affected area can help to lessen pain and speed healing.
Patients who have less pain also have a lower risk of dependence on opioids, which are commonly prescribed post-operatively and can be highly-addictive. In the largest study of its kind, researchers from Boston University found that patients who had physical therapy before and/or after knee replacement had a lower chance of long-term opioid use after surgery. Physical therapy is a viable alternative to medication for pain relief not just from surgery, but for a range of health symptoms and conditions.
5.Lower Risk of Complications
“Better in, better out” is an approach commonly used in perioperative care. The stronger and more prepared patients are for surgery, the better their outcomes will be.
Complications can occur as a result of pre-existing conditions that contribute to reduced overall cardiovascular fitness and tissue health. When not addressed, the risk of postoperative morbidity and length of recovery significantly increase. Physical therapy prior to surgery can help improve overall fitness and make the tissues healthier to promote healing, allowing for less complications, better outcomes, and a shorter recovery.
6. Faster Recovery
A smooth procedure with no complications means one thing for patients: a shorter recovery. Recovery is also improved with low-impact exercise to increase blood circulation and help speed healing. A faster recovery is good news for athletes and other patients eager to get back to activity. In fact, one study found that preoperative physical therapy is linked to a 29% decrease in post-acute care services for surgical patients.
7. Positive Mental Attitude
A positive outlook about surgery and recovery is one benefit of pre-surgical physical therapy you might not have considered. See, it all starts with education—a key component of a comprehensive physical therapy treatment plan.
Along with your surgical team, your physical therapist takes time to explain how you may feel immediately after surgery and throughout the course of your rehabilitation. They should mention any symptoms or challenges you might encounter along with possible signs for concern.
They can also prepare you with suggestions on how to move easier and complete daily tasks that may be challenging after surgery. Knowing what to expect helps to relieve anxiety and uncertainty. Informed patients tend to be more confident and optimistic about their health journey, and more engaged in their recovery.
Every patient has their own unique health needs and goals. Some conditions may not benefit from physical therapy before surgery, particularly if exercise can aggravate symptoms.
Also, some patients are prohibited from certain physical activities due to functional deficits related to their condition. Consult your healthcare provider and schedule a physical therapy screening to determine the best course of care before and after surgery.
As noted above, pre-surgical physical therapy is not for everyone. But here are some conditions that may benefit from physical therapy before surgery:
• ACL/MCL reconstruction
• Surgery for Hand/wrist pain
• Hip arthroplasty
• Knee arthroplasty
• Rotator cuff surgery
• Shoulder arthroplasty
• Spine surgery
That depends. Some procedures are medically-necessary. For example, patients who need a total joint replacement cannot have significant improvement without surgery. Physical therapy alone will restore function and mobility for joints damaged by injury or disease.
However, physical therapy can help other patients improve to a point where surgery can be delayed or avoided. Physical therapy for carpal tunnel syndrome, knee meniscus tears, osteoarthritis, and some lower back conditions can possible achieve relieve from pain and stiffness without an invasive procedure. The best course of treatment varies from patient to patient. To learn more, schedule a screening at a physical therapy clinic near you.