Do you suffer from pain? If you do, you will know that there is nothing quite like a high quality massage from an exceptional, skilled physical therapist to help ease tension in stiff, sore muscles and make you feel like a million bucks. But what if there were therapies that could not only ease aches and pains, but could increase the range of motion in your joints, reduce inflammation and reduce restriction in painful areas? Fortunately, there are and the key to finding this type of manual therapy can be found in your physical therapist’s office.
What is Manual Therapy?
Manual therapy is any form of hands-on treatment that is designed to help a part of the body function better. Injury, disease, swelling, or surgery often leaves joints and soft tissue inflamed and painful with limited flexibility and mobility. Physical therapists are experts in the science of movement as well as the entire musculoskeletal system. They not only see how your body is moving currently, but what is possible with a combination of targeted exercise and hands-on treatments. The types of manual therapy each patient receives is different and depends on their pain levels, the area that is affected, whether they have had surgery, and their ability to move. Your physical therapist will evaluate your movement, pain levels and surgeon’s recommendations (if applicable) to decide the best course of therapy to pursue. The manual therapy portion of your rehabilitation experience may include some of these most common types.
When you are in pain, your body’s natural defense mechanism is to immobilize the joint where the pain is located. While effective, immobilizing the joint often leads to more pain, less movement and a decreased overall function of the area. Joint mobilization techniques allow a physical therapist to restore movement to the restricted joint. Even if you cannot move the joint a certain way on your own, your physical therapist will use slow motion to help it along. Joint mobilization may be uncomfortable at first, but it is an important step in the manual therapy process.
Sometimes your body sends and receives abnormal signals to and from your brain causing malfunctions in your neuromuscular reflexes. In short, sometimes you have spasms that cause painful tender spots in your body. Your physical therapist can help you stretch your body in ways that release many of these reflexes and help alleviate your pain. The entire strain-counterstrain process takes just a few minutes, but can make a difference long after the therapy is over.
Soft Tissue Mobilization
Whenever someone talks about soft tissues, we think of pillowy masses under your skin. In reality, your muscles, tendons and ligaments are strong, complex parts of your body that play important roles in how well your joints move. If there is too much tension in the muscle, it can spasm and pull the joint out of place. In this case, simple mobilization can release the spasm and help the joint. If the muscle has been injured or if it had to be cut for surgery, scar tissue and adhesions may form causing painful stiffness and joint immobilization. During soft tissue mobilization, any fibrous scar tissue is broken up by applying deep pressure and rhythmic stretching to the muscle. Once the adhesions are broken up, pain tends to diminish and patients notice better movement in their joints.
High Velocity, Low Amplitude Thrusting
The goal of this therapy is to allow the joints to open and close more effectively. A joint is moved to the edge of its restriction and a targeted thrusting motion releases the limits to its range of motion. Of course, your physical therapist will never stretch your joint beyond its anatomical limit nor does this type of therapy cause structural damage. It does increase range of motion which increases function and keeps the body from compensating for a limited joint.
Muscle Energy Techniques
Muscle energy techniques are used to intentionally lengthen and shorten muscles in an effort to mobilize a restricted joint. Your physical therapist will work with you to contract the muscle in an isometric hold and then release the hold. This active process effectively engages the muscles making them stronger and longer, thus limiting a joint’s restriction.
While manual therapy is an effective and vital part of physical therapy, it is only a part of what happens in a physical therapist’s office. When combined with targeted exercise, many patients discover that physical therapy addresses not only their pain but their function as well.