Physical Therapy and the Promise of Improved Mobility, Strength, and Balance
Last updated: February 2015
Every so often, the nihilist in me comes to the surface. Not in a late 19th century Russian let’s-kill-the-Tsar-and-exile-all-the-aristocrats kind of way--and definitely not in a modern day ISIS extremist let’s-behead-everybody-that-disagrees-with-me way, either. More like a twice-per-decade review of some of my life narratives and a harsh evaluation of which ones are really true and which need to be tossed into the ideologue dumpster with the rest of the garbage.
The latest narrative under review is what I’ve been telling myself about the merits of exercise in terms of improving mobility, strength, and balance. If you’ve done any research at all about the importance of maintaining a regular exercise routine, then you’ve read the prevailing wisdom about exercise and MS: Among other things, it will probably keep you out of a wheelchair longer than if you remain sedentary. Until recently, I had taken an uber-skeptical stance on the true benefits of exercise that borders on outright prejudice. It was based solely on a prior experience.
My PT experience four years ago was, to say the least, disappointing and ultimately frustrating. It started with aquatherapy, from which I gained some much-needed muscle conditioning and strength that improved my posture. In the second month I was promoted to dry land and marched through various resistance machine routines, as well as yanking on oversized rubber bands, throwing a ball against a wall and catching it while balancing on a trampoline, ankle-strengthening on a BAPS board, doing supervised lunges while tethered to the physical therapist by a strap, stepping blocks, and some other things I’ve since forgotten. Would’ve been great to wrap it all up with a rub-down and a scotch and cigar at my club, but all I did at the end was hobble to my car and drive home. Blast it all.
After the second month, my PT order ended and my option was to continue going to the rehab center to maintain my routine. I did just that, except one important piece changed everything. When the PT order ended, so did my stretching sessions with the physical therapist prior to each workout. I was told how to stretch at home, on my back, using a bedsheet pulled under one thigh and grasped at both ends, then pulled so that my leg was as close to my chest as possible. I simply didn’t have the strength or coordination to do it. But, I didn’t call them and tell them that, either, and ask for an alternative method. My own yoga stretches not only didn’t help, I experienced rebound pain the next day and started skipping exercise whenever it happened. After two weeks, I stopped going to the rehab center all together. Soon afterward, I went to the ER with a full-blown gallbladder attack. So, I got sidetracked for the rest of that summer with other health concerns. A few years went by, full of other distractions, rather serious ones that reminded me how little control I had over most of life’s events. My exercise-fail seemed just one more raggedy remnant to add to the helpless-to-control circular file.
I was forced to re-examine my attitude about exercise when recent circumstances plunked me in an apartment all by myself, a situation I’d never experienced before, having always lived with either a husband or a family member. The prospect of hobbling along my life path alone made something instantly clear: It is imperative that I remain as independent, as self-sufficient, and as physically healthy and strong as possible for the sake of my own safety and happiness. If I can’t make it on my own, my next stop is a nursing home, plain and simple. Happiness cannot develop without quality of life, and quality of life can’t exist without reasonably good health. Good health is comprised of nutrition and some kind of regular movement, adequate sleep, daily moments of inner peace, and nourishing social relationships to the extent that your particular temperament can manage.
That seems like a lot of things, particularly if you feel the need to make several changes like I do. I can no longer focus on several tasks or goals at once, thanks to MS and aging. So, last year was the year to quit smoking, and I succeeded. But I have transferred my oral obsession with cigarettes to an obsession with eating. I don’t move my body and I shove things into my mouth all day long. This year, my focus will be on food choices/reducing calories and exercise.
Fortunately, I have a buddy for the diet part of this: my sister. We are doing this together. First I’ll focus on the eating part. After I’ve lost a little and it has become routine, then I’ll fill the PT order at my local rehab center and add exercise.
I’ll be writing more about my progress on these goals, providing details of what I eat and what the PT program includes and how my body responds to it, so stay tuned. If you are already watching your nutrition and you engage in some form of regular exercise, my hat goes off to you. Wish me luck with this journey, I want to have the same success with it that I had quitting smoking last year.
If you are thinking about seeking out physical therapy, here are some tips to think about:
- Consider choosing a facility where you can continue to exercise after your PT order ends. There are rehab centers that are also open to public membership. That way, the PT staff knows you and your particular needs, and will be on hand if you need assistance or enhancement of your routine.
- Distance is also an important consideration. If a facility matches the criteria above but it’s 50 miles from your home, you might be less inclined to make the trip. Think in terms of what you would realistically be willing to do and stick with—and that might mean doing PT at a hospital and then finding a local athletic center nearby to continue your routine.
- Stretching is important before and after exercise. Learn a method that you can manage and keep doing it to avoid injury. We have enough trouble with our spastic, spazzy muscles as it is, right?
I wish us all success!
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