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The Healing Power of Touch

For Easing Your Pain: Physical Therapy

What it is: After an injury or illness, physical therapy (PT) can help you learn better ways to stand, walk, and move. Sessions may include loosening specific joints, working the soft tissue around joints, and offering guidance about proper movement patterns.

Why try it? Physical therapy treats and prevents a wide variety of conditions, including lower-back pain and problems resulting from accidents, surgery, or sports in-juries. One recent study found that those who did PT following breast cancer surgery had significantly less pain, improved shoulder function, and better quality of life than those who only received a leaflet with exercises to do at home. You could also see a physical therapist if you haven’t exercised regularly — or not for a long time — and are considering a fitness program and want to ward off injuries.

A physical therapist plays detective to figure out what about your body or movement pattern is causing the pain. Let’s say your shoulder aches after a car accident. Your physical therapist will consider what happened during the accident, but will also look at your joint mobility, posture, body strength, flexibility, and soft tissue tone and texture to develop the right plan for you. Six months after her daughter was born, 37-year-old marathon-runner Sarah Lee of Arlington, VA, started to feel pain in her hip, which then migrated to her shoulder. “I thought, I’m too young for this to become a chronic problem — this has got to stop,” recalls Lee. So Lee went to see Jennifer Gamboa, a doctor of physical therapy in Arlington. Gamboa determined that Lee’s ribs expanded when she was pregnant and hadn’t returned to their normal position after the baby was born, which contributed to pain elsewhere. So Gamboa gradually worked the ribs back into place by stretching the tissue between them as well as the area where they connect to the spine; this technique helped improve the ribs’ mobility so that they could fully descend during exhalation.

When all goes well, patients see improvements within several sessions. When treatment is completed, not only should you have decreased pain but you should also understand the conditions that contributed to your pain, as well as how to prevent it in the future — often by doing exercises on your own, prescribed by your physical therapist. Lee felt better by her fourth visit. “I always assumed physical therapy was just supervised stretching. I was skeptical about what it could do for me,” she says. “But I’ve gone from shuffling out of bed to walking like a normal person.” And she’s preparing for her next marathon.

To find a physical therapist, try the American Physical Therapy Association site at apta.org. The cost of treatment can range from $100 to $180 per appointment, and most PT sessions are covered by insurance.

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