As the Baby Boomer population continues to age, the need for physical therapy is growing rapidly. Physical therapists are becoming overwhelmed by too much demand and not enough supply.
Fortunately, emerging medical technologies are picking up a lot of the slack. And meanwhile, many of the tried and true physical therapy techniques continue to be effective.
So just what are the current trends in physical therapy? Read on to find out.
In this article, we give you up-to-date information on the most popular physical therapy tools, techniques, and technologies that are being used today.
Look below to check out today’s cutting-edge physical therapy practices.
Though medical technology continues to advance, there is still a place for these traditional physical therapy techniques.
The employment of water-based physical therapy remains strong in 2018. In fact, thanks to the aging of the enormous Baby Boomer population, it may be more popular than ever.
The gravity-defying effects of aquatic therapy and resistance that the water provides makes it uniquely helpful to several types of patients. It is particularly beneficial to patients with joint pain, extreme obesity, or other mobility-limiting factors.
Patients who benefit most from aquatic therapy include those with arthritis, fibromyalgia, muscle spasms, nerve damage, and spinal problems. Aquatic therapy has been proven superior to other exercise-based therapy techniques for such patients.
The buoyancy afforded by the water takes the pressure off of aching joints or other affected areas. This buoyancy allows patients to perform physical therapy exercises with a better range of motion.
And while this makes the treatment feel easier, the motion is met with resistance in the water. This helps the patient build up the desired muscle strength, too. Also, the warm water helps relax muscles and boost blood circulation during treatment.
Lately, there seems to be more emphasis on incorporating strength training into physical therapy. This is both for rehabilitation and for prevention of reinjury or injuries in general.
As you know, most physical therapy techniques have always been exercise-based. They already include exercises to strengthen specific muscles related to the diagnosis. These are of great benefit during the early stages of therapy and are effective at rebuilding muscles around the affected area.
But what we’re talking about here is an increased emphasis on general weight training to strengthen all muscle groups. Therapists are finding that specific, therapy-focused exercises aren’t sufficient to prepare the patient to perform any real-life activities.
They merely improve the patient’s ability to perform the exercises themselves.
But strengthening the entire body better equips the patient for most, if not all, real-life functions/activities their day requires.
This training also strengthens the secondary muscle groups that help support and stabilize any muscle groups that are currently impaired. This gives the patient more muscular reinforcement to compensate for their condition.
One of the most common reasons people need physical therapy is limited mobility. Unfortunately, this same reason makes it hard for many to receive the care they need.
People suffering from limited mobility or recent injury may not be physically able to drive to their local clinic for an appointment. Even getting on a bus can seem like too much of a challenge.
Because of these difficulties, many patients decide to stay home and never complete their therapy program. In turn, their decision to stay home leads to painful and dangerous complications or reinjury.
Fortunately, telemedicine (house calls) is becoming more popular in the field of physical therapy. Those who have difficulty getting to the clinic can complete their therapy at home. As telemedicine becomes more available, we will see many more treatment plans completed and much fewer readmissions for those who would otherwise not seek treatment.
Light therapy is the application of red, infrared, and near-infrared light to invoke a positive cellular reaction. Light therapy acts on light-reactive molecules in our cells called chromophores. Just like the chlorophyll in plants, chromophores trigger a cellular response when exposed to certain wavelengths of light.
Light therapy treatment increases cellular production of ATP, collagen, DNA and other materials our body uses to heal. This makes it extremely useful for accelerating the healing of damaged tissues, both internal and external. Not only is it completely noninvasive, but it can even stimulate the healing of muscles that aren’t healing on their own.
It can also be used to combat specific symptoms. It is proven to reduce pain and inflammation associated with arthritis, carpal tunnel, and other conditions.
Low-level laser therapy (LLLT) has been standard practice in physical rehabilitation for over a decade. There are numerous studies proving its effectiveness in treating injuries, chronic pain, even hair loss.
LLLT is also proven effective against a number of very serious conditions. It’s used to treat victims of stroke, spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, and degenerative central nervous system disorders.
More recently, LEDs are being used in light therapy to treat these same conditions. They have been found particularly effective at healing burns and other wounds.
Light Therapy LEDs have access to a broader spectrum of light wavelengths than lasers do. So they can treat burns with light wavelengths less likely to cause burns than laser therapy.
There are also many different light therapy LED devices available for use at home.
Robotics is arguably the most revolutionary of physical therapy technologies. Previously, rehabilitating a person with paralysis required a therapist to crawl on the floor while moving the patient’s legs with their hands.
Now, this is achieved more easily and more accurately using robotic treadmills and exoskeletons. These machines move the patient’s legs in a normal walking pattern with much more precision than a therapist could manually. These robotics even have sensors to detect the patient’s reactions to the treatment and respond accordingly.
Lokomat is a robotic treadmill that helps restore patients to a proper gait. It supports the patient’s body weight so they can practice moving their legs in a walking motion without having to support their own weight. It’s used to treat a variety of patients, including those affected by stroke, brain or spinal injury, cerebral palsy, and multiple sclerosis.
The therapist is still present, controlling the functions of the Lokomat. They adjust the walking speed and the amount of weight the patient supports as needed throughout the training.
Another class of robotics is the exoskeleton: a wearable, robotic suit that helps the same way as the Lokomat. These suits work as a harness to support the weight of the user. But they use their own battery power to help the patient walk around on the floor instead of on a treadmill.
The clear benefit here is an increased range of motion during therapy. Instead of always traveling in a straight line, users can turn right or left. It also frees up the hands of the therapist so they can help the patient in any way necessary.
Robotics isn’t the only technological advancement that’s revolutionizing physical therapy. As mobile apps have become commonplace, use of games and apps in physical therapy has become increasingly popular.
This is also primarily due to the success of fitness apps. People use fitness apps to count their steps or track their calories.
In the same way, they now use apps to measure and track the success of their physical therapy treatment. Apps and wearable devices are used to measure the range of motion of joints and monitor patients’ movements and vital signs. Such apps are helpful to both patients and therapists.
Below is a more detailed look at how apps, games, and other programs are improving the world of physical therapy.
More and more, we’re seeing gaming incorporated into many different physical therapy treatments. Physical therapy can be a stressful and even depressing process for many patients. Adding a gaming aspect to the treatment makes it more enjoyable and distracts from depressing thoughts or depression.
The entertainment value and the goal-oriented structure of games also help motivate many patients toward improvement. The hope is that these factors will make patients more engaged and more likely to complete treatment. But more research is needed to confirm gaming’s effectiveness in physical therapy treatment.
Many therapists use the Nintendo Wii for physical rehabilitation. Wii games offer a fun way to practice many of the physical movements and exercises that rehabilitation requires.
The games are also competitive, which inspires participation, engagement, and buy-in among patients. And it can be done at home.
In the same way as gaming elements, virtual reality offers a more stimulating therapy environment. Instead of walking around the dismal clinic room they’re sick of looking at, they can walk a scenic, outdoor hiking trail via VR.
Gaming elements can also be added to the VR environment for the same benefits listed above. Patients training to walk correctly can envision crossing a finish line.
VR games respond to the user’s movements. So they can be used to inspire any movement or exercise needed for therapy.
These days, there are apps for everything. That now includes physical therapy. Patients can download numerous educational physical therapy apps for personal use.
There are a lot of apps that teach detailed information about anatomy. Layered, 3D models give patients a comprehensive look at the body parts they’re having trouble with. These apps help patients gain a better understanding of their condition.
The Sports Injury Clinic app can help you diagnose sports injuries. It includes a symptom checker and a massive database of common sports injuries.
Other apps can teach you what physical therapy exercises you need and how to do them. Use these apps to search through hundreds of physical therapy videos based on your needs. Then store the videos on your phone.
Apps like PT Timer and PT Pal help you stay on track with your treatment plan. These give the patient timers for stretches and exercises, reminder alerts, and other organizational software to help them complete treatment plans.
Already, the apps mentioned above help therapists tremendously. Anything an app can do to guide patients through their treatment is less work for the therapist. But in addition, there are apps that are specifically designed to help therapists and hospital staff provide quality care to their patients.
One of the most amazing is the “Stroke Wearable Operative Rehabilitation Device” (SWORD). The SWORD system uses wearable sensor devices to track patient movements. It records this data and sends it to an online database in real-time.
Therapists can then access this data to monitor the patient’s status remotely. The system even utilizes artificial intelligence to assist therapists. The AI analyzes the data and instructs patients on proper technique when doing physical therapy exercises.
Other notable apps for physical therapists and staff include Goniometer Pro, iOrtho+, Medical Spanish and BlueJay Engage. All these are currently still available in iTunes in 2018.
Goniometer Pro measures joint range-of-motion. Medical Spanish is a Spanish-to-English translation service specially equipped to translate medical terms.
iOrtho+ is an extensive database of orthopedic tests and exercises for medical staff and is organized by anatomy. Therapists can tap the afflicted area on the skeleton for instant access to all the resources they need.
BlueJay Engage makes it easy for therapists and patients to stay in contact. In addition to a text messaging program, therapists can assign exercises and other treatment information directly from the app’s database. It also tracks and graphs the patient’s progress at home for the therapist to see.
Physical therapists help those who need it most. But today, they’re spread too thin to support all the elderly Baby Boomers, plus everyone else who needs their care. Now the physical therapists need all the help they can get.
But soon, with the aid of advancing medical technologies, therapists will have the tools they need to give the care that’s needed. As this new technology takes some of the workload from therapists, physical therapists can take on more patients than before.
These cutting-edge physical therapy techniques are changing the lives of therapists and patients everywhere.
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