Physical Therapy a Boon for Seniors
Would you believe in a nondrug treatment that works for arthritis, cancer pain, Parkinson's, and incontinence and improves your strength and endurance? There is one -- physical therapy.
When a person gets injured or has a prolonged illness, doctors
often recommend physical therapy. In the case of older people, though,
sometimes this is seen as just something to "try." This could not be
further from the truth. Physical therapy is "A-quality" therapy for
many conditions affecting older people, from Alzheimer's to urinary
incontinence. In fact, one researcher did a study in which you had to be 100
years of age to even participate!
According to Jennifer M. Bottomley, PhD, MS, PT, president of
the geriatrics section of the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) and
adviser to the surgeon general, one of the main things that brings older people
to the physical therapist is a fall. "They want and need to maintain their
independence," she says.
"It's important to look at each individual," stresses
Tim Kauffman, PT, PhD, professor of physical therapy at the Hahnemann campus of
Drexel University in Philadelphia. "Every person of any age has an
individual background, say an auto accident, football injury, genetic
predispositions. No two 'old' people are the same."
According to APTA, physical therapy can restore or increase
strength, range of motion, flexibility, coordination, and endurance -- as well
as reduce pain. Another important role is to retrain the patient to do everyday
Guy Davidson, of Tempe, Ariz., was 70 when he had a stroke
following bypass surgery. The formerly busy minister could not speak, his right
leg would not support him, and his right arm hung straight down. He went into
rehab for three months. At first he could only sing, which uses a different
portion of the brain than speaking, but gradually he began to speak. After many
stressful sessions ("I would be sweating," he admits), he regained much
use of both his arm and leg and can dress himself, drive (he took lessons), and
work full time. Now he's back in the hospital every day -- visiting sick
Conditions Helped by Therapy
Physical therapy referrals are appropriate and helpful for many
problems thought of as affecting older people.
Take arthritis, for example. By 65, almost everyone has it in
their spine, Kauffman says, though not everyone has symptoms. Besides taking a
pill, suffers can avail themselves of many types of physical therapy --
aquatic, hot packs, electrical stimulation, ice to reduce swelling, there is a
long list. "We emphasize strength, range of motion, balance, and
coordination," Kauffman says.
"We get a lot of referrals for osteoporosis," Bottomley
notes. "We try to make people more stable in relation to gravity, doing
extension exercises to keep posture erect. Osteoporosis can lead to falls and
bones can be injured." (Weight-bearing exercise earlier in life can also
prevent osteoporosis, studies show.)
Physical therapy can also help alleviate some of the pain
associated with cancer. "We want to maintain the highest
functionality," Bottomley says. "The correct exercises after mastectomy
can reduce swelling and improve range of motion," Kauffman says. "The
therapist has to determine the right exercise and right amount based on
clinical judgment (rather than patients just moving around as much as they can
stand to at home)."
How about that old favorite, incontinence? "This is an
exercise in locating the muscles that control that and operating them at
will," Kauffman says. Social timing is also important -- knowing how soon
after drinking something you will need to use the restroom and planning for
that. A physical therapist can help establish such patterns.