As someone who has had some major (and minor) orthopedic surgeries, I’ve seen my fair share of physical therapists. I learned early on how important PT is to the healing process, and how having the right PT can be a huge benefit during recovery. So I’m always surprised to hear that some people shrug off physical therapy — they think it’s not necessary, so they never make an appointment. Or it hurts too much during the first session, so they go home and don’t come back.

In honor of National Physical Therapy Month, I thought it was a good time to remind consumers why PT is crucial to recovery if your doctor recommends it. Read on to be reminded of some of the many reasons you should do post-op physical therapy if your doctor says it’s necessary.

Why physical therapy is important after surgery

with advice from Mitchel Kaye, PT,
and John Milne, M.D., M.B.A., FACEP

Why physical therapy is important after surgery

You’ve been dealing with chronic pain for months, and have talked to your doctor about surgery. It’s been scheduled and now you’re anxious about getting through the day. But what do you do the day — or the week — after the operation?

Many patients focus so much on the hours spent at the hospital that they don’t consider the importance of rehabilitation after the operation. If your doctor has prescribed physical therapy after your surgery, it’s because he believes it will be a key part of your recuperation. Here are some of the reasons you may need to do PT after your operation:

  • Reason 1: To promote healing.

This is the most common reason doctors prescribe physical therapy after surgery, to make sure that your body heals properly from your operation. This could be to minimize scar tissue after arthroscopy on your knee or shoulder, or to retrain your muscles after a major surgery, like repairing an ACL tear. The variety of factors is a key reason to see a physical therapist, says Mitchel Kaye, PT, Director of Quality Assurance for PTPN, Physiquality’s parent company. “Because the options and variables are so numerous,” he says, “it’s important to consult with your PT for a plan designed specifically for your situation.”

Physical therapists are musculoskeletal experts that are there to help improve the way you feel and function.Keep in mind that your surgeon’s specialty is to diagnose and repair an injury, while physical therapists are musculoskeletal experts that are there to help improve the way you feel and function. A PT has the time for coaching and follow through that are key to healing, points out John Milne, the founder of Avnew Health.

  • Reason 2: To regain mobility.

Surgeries on the lower extremities in particular (think your knees and hips) require physical therapy to regain mobility. This could be getting back to daily activities like walking and gardening, or returning to more vigorous exercise, like running a race. Mitch says, “PTs understand the different stages of healing, and they know how to progress the treatment program in a manner that will prevent injury or delay recovery time, so that the patient can return to his active lifestyle.”

And don’t be concerned about what the person next to you is doing at the clinic. Mitch notes that your physical therapist will take into consideration both your pre-op fitness state and your post-op goals when developing your treatment plan. In addition, Mitch points out, a physical therapists will assess the joints and muscles above and the below the surgery site to make sure those areas are fully functional as well. “For example,” he says, “after a knee injury, the ankle can become less mobile, or the trunk muscles may become stiff and weak, which could cause the person to have to expend more energy while moving, causing them to become fatigued more quickly.”

  • Reason 3: To have a faster recovery.

Doing the necessary rehabilitation will help your body recover much more quickly than if left to its own devices. In the case of total joint replacements, it’s been shown that starting physical therapy as soon as in the recovery room (i.e., when you wake up from the anesthesia) can lead to shorter hospital stays and quicker recoveries.

Patients who are actively engaged in their healthcare have better experiences than those who are not.

  • Reason 4: To be involved in your rehabilitation.

Working with the physical therapist allows the patient to be actively engaged in her recovery, and research has shown that patients who are actively engaged in their healthcare have better experiences than those who are not. A patient can work directly with his PT to determine not only how to best recover from surgery, but also how to live a healthier life. “Time spent in therapy after surgery may vary dramatically,” says John, “but continuing on the path to health with recovery is very important. Completing your surgical solution with physical therapy is the most proactive way you can stay and keep healthy for years to come.”

Many doctors will also send you for a few sessions of physical therapy before your operation. This will help to strengthen your body as much as possible. In addition, talking to your PT about what lies ahead, including length of rehabilitation and what levels of pain to expect during your recovery, can be a huge help when approaching your post-operation period. In fact, a recent study showed that back patients who had just one pre-op session with a physical therapist had a much smoother post-op experience. So take advantage of their experience to prepare for your own.

Need a physical therapist for your post-surgery rehabilitation?
See if there’s a Physiquality physical therapist near you.

Mitch Kaye, PTMitchel Kaye, PT, oversees all aspects of clinical review and quality oversight for PTPN, Physiquality’s parent company. Mitch also assists PTPN regional offices with quality assurance program management through ongoing training and support, and he meets with members, physicians and payers as needed for program development and problem resolution.

John Milne, M.D., M.B.A., FACEPJohn Milne, M.D., M.B.A., FACEP, is the CEO of Avnew Health, a (PTPN vendor partner) company that works with physicians and physical therapists to improve quality and decrease cost in healthcare. As a physician, his focus is on “cutting the fat out of healthcare.”

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For further reading, look through our selection of articles on injury prevention and treatment, in addition to the below links:

Move Forward, from the American Physical Therapy Association.

Hibbard, Judith H. and Jessica Greene. What the evidence shows about patient activation: better health outcomes and care experiences; fewer data on costs. Health Affairs, February 2013.