When actor Christopher Reeves suffered a paralyzing spinal cord injury after a fall in a 1995 equestrian jumping competition, his resolve to walk again inspired the world and the rehabilitation industry to aspire to greater things. This was Superman, after all. 

Reeves’ determination drove him to be tough and work hard, even when doctors told him he’d never have movement below his neck again. Guided and coached by physical therapists each week, he proved the experts wrong when his body gradually reconnected to small feeling in his leg and arm, moving his finger, wrist and thumb for the first time since the accident. Reeves made significant accomplishments over those nine years after his accident, attributing vigorous physical activity to his improved function. 

Today, the same super strength that Reeves demonstrated moves forward in the work of 290,000 licensed physical therapists in the United States. 

“We are now at a point in history where very advanced tools like robotics, virtual reality and 3-D printers are available and impacting patients and outcomes in a very positive way,” said Gretchin Bitner, director of therapy operations at Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital of Tustin in California.

Building robust rehabilitation programs to help people optimize quality of life, physical therapists work with patients of all ages and needs, using knowledgeable hands-on care to provide a second chance to live independently.

“By incorporating academic rigor and innovation the sky is the limit for what we can do for and with our patients,” Bitner said.

While people from all walks of life find themselves in need of a physical therapy program, here are the top five segments in action today.

1. Geriatric                                             

As part of the fastest growing rehabilitation populations, geriatric patients continue to grow the demand for physical therapy across the nation. Physical therapists play an important role when rehabilitating seniors who present conditions such as joint replacements, Parkinson’s disease, brain injury, and pulmonary and cardiac needs. They must also meet the ever-pressing needs of patients who’ve suffered a stroke – the leading cause of disability in the United States – or complications due to falls such as hip fractures, internal brain bleeds and serious wounds. Fortunately, no matter the condition, physical therapists can help restore mobility, endurance, balance and function, while providing preventive measures for the future, so patients can live their highest quality of life. 

2. Pediatric 

Physical therapists who specialize in pediatrics possess specific training and a heart for helping children. Working with patients with spina bifida, developmental delays, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy and other conditions, these physical therapists share a goal of getting their patients to do as much as they can themselves. It may be improving endurance to maneuver busy hallways to get to class on time, or limiting falls by strengthening muscles groups for better balance. Or providing bracing and other support measures to address foot drop or other challenges. Achieving greater function is what it’s all about for children and teens in pediatrics.

3. Sports

If you watch any type of sport, pee wee to pro, chances are you’ve seen an injury or two requiring rehabilitation. Physical therapists know how to get athletes back in condition and on the team, working most often with patients overcoming surgeries for ACL, rotator cuff or knee injuries. And don’t forget concussions, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates affect 10 percent of all contact sport athletes each year. Most professional and college teams even have a physical therapist on staff to provide general strength and conditioning on and off season to keep athletes in top form. 

4. Limb loss

Physical therapy has come a long way for limb loss rehabilitation, helping people lead productive lives after amputation. Many of these cases follow a traumatic vehicle or motorcycle accident or a military mishap such as an explosion. Physical therapists are essential in helping these patients manage the integrity of the residual limb, preserving the joints and maintaining full range of motion and flexibility. This increases opportunities for successful prosthetic use down the road and a more mobile way of life. 

5. Pain management

Pain is one of the most common reasons people seek healthcare. Physical therapists offer solutions to help prevent acute pain from becoming chronic pain, without the use of pills. The American Physical Therapy Association has even taken an active role in promoting the use of physical therapy to lessen the opioid crisis. Alternative physical therapy treatments like trigger point therapy, ultrasound, electric stimulation, stretching and massage can work magic in pain management, keeping you more productive and medication-free.  

Learn more

To find out more about the benefits of physical therapy, visit apta.org or encompasshealth.com.

Resources

Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation at Christopherreeve.org 

American Physical Therapy Association at apta.org 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

American Stroke Association

https://www.apta.org/PolicyResources/PositionPapers/OpioidEpidemic/

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