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The Benefits of Physical Therapy After Surgery

by Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT October 13, 2021 0 Comments

Man doing physical exercise

Whether you’ve endured an injury, need rehab after surgery, are dealing with health issues that compromise your physical health, or want to prevent future problems, the benefits of physical therapy treatment are vast. The road to recovery isn’t always easy but we want to share why it’s such an important tool and help you along your rehab journey.

Who Should Consider Physical Therapy (PT)

There are many indications for physical therapy that would warrant getting scheduled for your initial evaluation and subsequent treatments.

Below is a general list of reasons to visit a physical therapist in your area:

  • Preparing for surgery to potentially improve post-surgical outcomes
  • Following any surgery to restore endurance and boost recovery, such as:
    • Orthopedic surgeries- including but not limited to a total hip joint replacement, total knee replacement, shoulder ligament repair, knee ACL repair, etc. 
    • Open heart surgery
  • Breast cancer surgery
  • Wound treatment for burns, surgical incisions, punctures, and more
  • High impact injuries related to falls, sports, or a car accident
  • Increased risk for injury or a high fall risk due to genetics, injury, or other issues causing a balance problem
  • Overuse injuries from sport or work
  • Recovery from stroke, heart attack, or other injury that seriously affects your health and function- resulting in various degrees of disabilities
  • Chronic illness such as diabetes (high blood sugar), heart disease, Parkinsons, lung disease, lymphedema and more
  • Women’s health issues related to pregnancy, postpartum, pelvic floor disorders, and incontinence
  • General pain complaints, including back pain (most common)
  • Any reason that is resulting in a loss of participation in your normal daily activities

As you can see, there are a lot of potential reasons for reaping the benefits of physical therapy, some more obvious than others. Of these benefits, rehab after surgery is the most common indicator for doctor referrals to a physical therapist. (Keep in mind that unless your insurance requires it, you can go to a physical therapist without a prescription.)

PT Niches

Depending on your rehab goals and needs, there are many different niches of physical therapy that you might look into as well. For example, some physical therapists specialize in sports medicine, orthopedics, neurological recovery (such as a stroke or brain injury), women’s health, and more. When doing your research keep this in mind with your personal needs.

Benefits of Physical Therapy Post Surgery

using stretch strap

Surgery of any kind requires a period of rest while you manage your pain and swelling. Finding the right balance of movement and rest in those first few crucial weeks can help your recovery go smoother and help you feel confident as you heal and progress. Below are the top reasons why you should get physical therapy after surgery of any kind (that will boost your overall well-being and outcomes), especially following orthopedic surgery.

Speeds Up Healing

Understanding what modalities and movements promote better blood flow can expedite the tissue healing process. Depending on your age, overall health, the severity, and what tissues were damaged, you can expect to be well on your way to recovery in around 6 weeks.

Restore Movement & Flexibility

While initial rest may be important for protecting the integrity of damaged tissues, there is also an inherent risk of too much rest that leads to loss of normal joint range of motion and tissue flexibility. Finding the right balance can be hard to manage on your own. Having a movement expert guiding you can help you know when is the appropriate time to start stretching and moving. This will be done initially with therapist-guided movements and you will gradually transition to home stretches and exercises when you are ready.

Reduce Pain & Swelling

The biggest concern most people have following surgery is managing their pain. Pain and swelling can play a large role in the quality of life and motivation levels for getting back to the activities you love. Knowing what exercises to do, how to move safely, and potentially getting hands-on treatment from your therapist (such as massage, stretching, and more) can help you better manage your pain. This can help you reduce your dependence on pain medications and prevent the possibility of developing debilitating chronic pain.

Reduce Post Surgery Complications

Surgery is invasive and comes with risks. Some of the biggest risk factors include bleeding, blood clots, swelling (i.e. lymphedema), and infection. You will be seeing your physical therapist frequently and they can monitor you for any red flags or symptoms that need to be addressed immediately with your doctor. Additionally, staying as active as possible and properly managing your swelling with your therapist can help directly mitigate some of these risk factors.

Reduce Scar Tissue

Surgery typically requires cutting through multiple layers of tissue in the body. When they are stitched back together and healing, there is a risk of developing adhesions. This can lead to pain, dysfunction, and stiffness directly at the scar and in underlying tissues. Your PT can use manual therapy techniques to promote better scar mobility. With time, they will then most likely show you techniques for managing your scar at home as well.

Boosts Independence

At the end of the day, the ultimate goal following surgery is to get back your life as soon as possible while feeling your best. That’s exactly what your PT will help you achieve by focusing on helping you get back to your favorite activities with an appropriate strength, endurance, and vigor. At your first appointment, your therapist will ask you about your goals with treatment and make sure you make meaningful progress toward them.

Boosts Productivity

Want to get back to work, sports, hobbies, and other activities as soon as possible? A PT will help you get there with all of the above benefits. This translates to less downtime and more time doing what you love.

Common Roadblocks

There are a few common issues that may come up during the recovery process that could leave you feeling frustrated. Thankfully, if you choose to work with a PT you will get professional guidance to address these issues and keep making gradual progress.

Feeling Discouraged

In your excitement to recover, you can feel totally frustrated with your lack of progress and dealing with symptoms like fatigue and pain. It’s totally normal to feel this way and will simply take time to get back to where you want to be (and physical therapy helps with this).

Feeling Overwhelmed

One of the biggest issues people face post-surgically is knowing where to start in their recovery process. Combine that with symptoms of pain and it can leave you feeling totally overwhelmed. Knowing when, where, and how to start with different stages of recovery will help you feel your best every step of the way.

Pain

You can count on your PT to give you medication-free recommendations for managing your pain with appropriate modalities. Plus, they will help you learn to tune into your body and use your pain symptoms as a gauge for what you should be doing after surgery.

Cost

Even with insurance, you may be coming up with a deductible or copay that has your spending maxed out for the year. Thus, adding the cost of PT can feel overwhelming as well. However, there are a few things to keep in mind:

    • If you have reached your deductible, your PT may be covered for the rest of the year without copays.
    • PT clinics will work with you to come up with a payment plan.
    • Many clinics offer a large discount if you are paying cash.
    • Keep in mind that a quicker and smoother recovery can translate to an expedited return to work, and thus income as well. The costs here are definitely worth the benefits to be gained.

Success Following Surgery

Making the decision to undergo surgery is a serious and invasive decision. When surgery is necessary, you definitely want to maximize your outcomes. Thus, keep these tips in mind to feel your best as you come out of surgery and strive to recover and return to your normal life. 

Be Patient

If you’ve elected to get surgery, there’s a good chance that you’ve been dealing with a chronic issue (such as osteoarthritis). Thus, you’re probably anxious to take back control of your life and health. However, the healing process will take time. Being patient with your body as it heals and giving it the rest it needs is important to optimize your outcomes. 

Make a Plan

Knowing what to expect after your surgery can help you feel in control. Talk to your doctor and/or physical therapist about the healing process. Your doctor will most likely send you to physical therapy as soon as possible to promote tissue healing and gradually restore your strength for daily activities.

Additionally, at home, you may need to consider how you will be getting around safely. For example, if you have stairs at home and are getting a hip or knee replacement you might want to set up a space for sleeping on the main floor for a while.

Gather Your Support System

Following surgery, you will definitely need some help. Everyday necessities like showering and cooking can sometimes feel impossible initially. Make sure you have a support system in place with your significant other, friends, or family that can help you with household tasks and assisting you to your follow-up appointments. 

Make Use of Rehab Tools

using shoulder pulley

Once you start physical therapy, there are a lot of remedies and exercises that you can do at home. Your physical therapist will help you decide which therapeutic exercises and treatments are best for your recovery. Plus, having a few rehab tools that make your exercises easier can also be very beneficial. These might include one or more of the following:

  • Pain relieving modalities

    Firstly, you will want to properly manage your pain following surgery. Your doctor will probably prescribe some pain medication to help you stay comfortable as you heal. However, there are some natural ways to get pain relief too. These include the use of an ice pack, compression, and electrical stimulation

  • Assistive devices

    Depending on the type of surgery you had and what restrictions your surgeon gives you, you may need to utilize a mobility aid. This might include devices like crutches, a cane, or a walker to reduce or completely avoid weight-bearing until appropriate healing has occurred.

  • Shoulder Pulley

    Following shoulder surgery, to avoid excessive stiffness you will start passively moving your shoulder as soon as possible. (Typically, active shoulder motion will need to be avoided for the first several weeks.) Your PT will recommend having a shoulder pulley for a home to consistently stretch the shoulder to keep the joints as flexible as possible. 

  • Stretch Straps

    Regardless of what joint you had surgery on, a stretch strap can be an invaluable tool. Using a stretch strap daily makes stretching easier and reduces unnecessary strain, particularly on the upper body and neck. This versatile tool is ideal for post-surgical rehab.

  • Weights

    Once you’re back to strengthening exercises, you can gradually progress them with the use of weights. This might include the use of dumbbells, ankle weights, or wrist weights. Additionally, your PT might also recommend the use of a resistance band.

Seek Guidance from Professionals

stretching with guidance

As mentioned several times, having your doctor and physical therapist for guidance will help you effectively navigate post-surgical recovery. Make sure to ask lots of questions throughout the process (before and after surgery) and voice any concerns. Having high-quality medical professionals guide you will help you feel confident as you heal and maximize your outcomes.

Set Short Term Tangible Goals

It can be easy to look forward to your long-term goals, such as the activities you want to get back to once you’re healed. Setting measurable short-term goals that will eventually get you to your long-term goals is ideal for feeling your best each step of the way.

Other Tips

If you take the time to follow our tips for success, you will be well on your way to a full recovery. To maximize the rehab process, keep these final basic tips in mind.

Warm-Up Before Sessions/Exercises

Prior to doing your exercises, in the physical therapy clinic or at home, it’s always best to warm up your body and muscles. Rhythmic motion, such as on a recumbent bike or pedal exerciser (for the legs or arms), are both great options. Additionally, some gentle stretches or strengthening moves are also a possibility prior to moving onto more complex exercises and moves in your routine. 

Drink Lots of Water

Staying hydrated as you recover is crucial for tissue health. Water is essential for the healing process. Also, think about your nutrition and ensure that you are getting a lot of vitamins and nutrients with your meals. 

Use Mirror to Check Form

Focusing on good form as you recover will help prevent unnecessary complications down the road. Poor movement patterns probably damaged your joints and caused pain to begin with. At home, you can use a mirror for visual feedback. 

Focus on Breathing

Our bodies heal better when there is adequate oxygen. Yet, with the pain following surgery, you may find yourself tensing up and holding your breath (whether you realize it or not). In fact, many people mistakenly hold their breath with exercise. It's important to focus on staying relaxed and breathing deeply to ensure you aren’t tensing up and healing tissues are getting the oxygen they need.

Taking Steps Forward

Starting rehab as soon as possible after surgery, or even before your scheduled surgery, is a no-brainer. This is especially true following orthopedic surgery but is ultimately indicated following any type of surgery. Typically, this will involve going to a private outpatient physical therapy clinic. Talk to your health care provider about getting a prescription for PT and ask them if they have any specific recommendations.

Resources:

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/160645

https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/treatment-tests-and-therapies/after-surgery-discomforts-and-complications

https://www.webmd.com/pain-management/rehab-after-surgery

Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT
Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT

JayDee Vykoukal is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, owner of the healthy habit platform Health Means Wealth, and freelance medical writer. She loves traveling and spending time with her family in nature. Her passion is helping others continue to participate in the activities they love through education and proper exercise.



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