How to Get the Most from a Physical Therapy Tune-Up

by Christina Lasich, MD Health Professional

When a car starts running a little rough, the first thought is to take it in for a tune-up. Check the oil. Check the spark plugs. Check the battery. When the human body starts sputtering, why not get a physical therapy tune-up? Check the muscle strength. Check the balance. Check the body mechanics. Even someone who has had a painful problem for years can benefit from a system-wide check, especially if the pain has been getting worse lately.

For example, a 41 year old woman with a history of a chronic neck, chest and arm pain started experiencing more frequent flare-ups with activities like playing baseball with her son. She had been through physical therapy before and was doing a home exercises program. But, I thought she could use a physical therapy tune-up. I wrote her a prescription with specific instruction for the physical therapist and sent her to the best one in town. After just a couple of weeks, she was feeling much better. The tune-up improved the mobility in her thoracic spine which freed up the chest wall and relieved tension on the sensitive nerves of the thoracic outlet. With some new exercises for her already existing program, she will be able to maintain a less painful life than what she had before this physical therapy tune-up. Now, she is back on the road feeling much better.

Sometimes tune-ups do not turn out so well, sometimes they do. All and all, revisiting a physical therapist can be worth the time and effort. Just a second set of eyes on a problem can be very beneficial because a different perspective can find different solutions. Overtime, muscles can lose strength and coordination. A tune-up can help remedy that situation. Overtime, body mechanics and postures can get sloppy. A physical therapist can overhaul that situation as well. With periodic checks on the neuromuscular system, pain can be relieved and prevented.

In order to get the most out of a tune-up, a couple of rules should be followed. First, find the best physical therapist. Not all physical therapist are created equally. Some are great, highly skilled clinicians. Some are worthless, generic robots. In order to find a proven therapist, I look for ones who are registered fellows of the American Academy of Orthopedic Manual Physical Therapists. Because of the rigorous written and hands-on testing, this organization contains the best in the business. You would not want to take your car to some "Joe" down the street. So, why take you to someone without proven skills?

The second rule for getting the most out of a physical therapy tune-up is to start with some specific orders from a doctor who understands rehabilitation principles like a physiatrist. A family doctor is just going to write a generic, non-specific prescription that says something like this: "Knee pain: 6 weeks of physical therapy". That type of prescription is like writing a medication prescription to a pharmacist that reads: "Diabetes: treat it". With more thought and teamwork from the ordering physician, physical therapy is more likely to be helpful.

Finally, the last rule for getting the most out of a physical therapy tune-up is to maintain an exercise program. Right after getting the car tuned up, everything is running better. But, unless you maintain good tire pressure, change the oil regularly, and use good gas; the sputtering, knocking and pinging will return quickly. The same goes for the human body. Maintaining even just a two minute workout is much better than nothing. Even if the exercise is as simple as rolling a ball in your hand, doing something is better than nothing. The simplest beginnings provide a small ripple of change and give a baseline from which to improve upon.

So if you are sputtering along with increasing levels of pain, check under the hood. And schedule your physical therapy tune-up today. If you follow the rules of: finding the best physical therapist, getting problem-specific orders from a rehabilitation specialist, and maintaining an exercise routine; you are more likely to have a successful physical therapy tune-up.

Christina Lasich, MD
Meet Our Writer
Christina Lasich, MD

Christina Lasich, M.D., wrote about chronic pain and osteoarthritis for HealthCentral. She is physiatrist in Grass Valley, California. She specializes in pain management and spine rehabilitation.