By Francesca Sacco
When an individual gets injured or experiences a prolonged illness, it’s not uncommon for health care professionals to recommend physical therapy as a treatment option.
But the benefits of physical therapy go beyond treatment and exercises, especially for individuals 60 and older.
“The aging population can make the most improvements in physical therapy,” said Charlie Wonsettler, a physical therapist at Wonsettler Physical Therapy & Specialized Health in Scenery Hill. “They really have a lot of potential.”
For many seniors, physical therapy often treats some of the naturally-occurring issues that are a part of aging, like managing pain, improving balance and increasing muscle strength and endurance.
“It can help restore the function to walk better. To climb stairs better. To get out of a chair better,” Cristy Schollaert, vice president of clinical operations at The Physical Therapy Institute Orthopedics and Sports Medicine Washington Clinic, said. “It can restore pain-free mobility and functionality.”
Schollaert said that balance is “trainable.”
“We’re not using strenuous activities per se. We’re placing people in positions to improve their center of gravity and to train the body to stabilize itself,” she said. “It’s a very accommodating process.”
According to the American Physical Therapy Association, physical therapy can restore or increase strength, range of motion, flexibility, coordination and endurance – as well as reduce pain. Another important aspect for older individuals is that physical therapy can retrain the body to do everyday tasks. This can be achieved through manual therapy, massage, exercising, stretching and other treatments.
Schollaert said that physical therapy can be used to treat various ailments, including arthritis, vertigo and neurological disorders like Parkinson’s disease.
“A lot of people don’t realize that they can benefit from treatment,” Schollaert said. “We can treat everything from back and neck pain to symptoms of a stroke and multiple sclerosis.”
While treatments and results vary depending on the individual, Schollaert said that many clients “start to notice relief of their symptoms within a few weeks.”
“The first appointment with us is the most important, and it’s very individualized,” she said. “We assess the entire body as a unit, from head to toe.”
Physical therapy can also reduce the risk of a fall, lessen the dependence on prescription drugs and allow older individuals to regain their independence or healthy lifestyle.
“There is a greater percentage of life lost at age 80 and up for individuals with falls,” Wonsettler, who specializes in the areas of dizziness, balance and movement disorders, said. “Falls are one of the biggest problems for hospitals and mortality.”
Wonsettler said that older individuals are often doubtful or unaware of the benefits and therefore don’t seek out or think of physical therapy to help them regain their functionality.
“Frequently, we see people who are stuck in the ‘it can’t get better’ mindset,” he said. “But that’s not always the case. Everyone is different. We want you to be able to move appropriately without pain.”
Having the proper support system can also make a big difference in recovery and treatment.
“People with good caregivers and good support systems do better,” Wonsettler said. “They are more likely to overcome challenges.”
Overall, Wonsettler and Schollaert encourage older individuals and their loved ones to investigate how physical therapy could benefit them.
“Education and knowledge are so important,” Wonsettler said. “If you’re having issues, reach out to your loved ones if available. If you feel comfortable with a physical therapist, give them a call. Or, if you have an upcoming appointment with your primary care physician, it’s a good time to bring up any issues you may be having. These are all great first steps.”