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50+: Live Better, Longer

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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.

Conditions Helped by Therapy continued...

"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.

More Conditions

Strokes, as Davidson's experience illustrates, definitely require physical therapy. "We use something called proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation," Bottomley says, explaining that this is a purposeful movement pattern that can stimulate and retrain the brain. Another technique -- which Davidson says greatly helped him -- is constraint therapy, in which the stroke sufferer's "good" limb is restrained and the weak or paralyzed one used 85% of the day. Speech retraining also can be an issue. "If the person is in pain, we can treat that electrically," Kauffman says.

Parkinson's is an "exciting" area, Kauffman says. "We have learned that physical intervention early -- before stage 4, when the therapist is often summoned -- can almost always prevent the severe symptoms of stage 4." He explains that the goal is to keep the Parkinson's patient's trunk flexible to avoid "robotic" movements. (Parkinson's disease is a chronic disease of the nervous system that results in a gradual decrease of muscle control.) Sometimes he has people lie on the floor and move their head and trunk in opposite directions. He even puts patients on horseback sometimes, which increases trunk strength and flexibility.

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