Three reasons to Be Serious About Post-Operative Physical Therapy

Having elective surgery to repair a joint may be a choice, but the physical therapy that usually follows surgery is anything but optional. So says Kate Grant, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Indiana University Health Rehabilitation Services.

“Before you have an elective surgery, you really need to think realistically about whether you are willing to work through the healing process,” Grant says. “As a provider, it’s much harder to help someone who doesn’t understand the personal effort and responsibility required to get 100 percent of the benefit from that surgery.”

Here are three reasons to take your post-operative physical therapy routine seriously:

It retrains the body. After tissue is disrupted by surgery, Grant says it must be stressed to develop the flexibility, strength and range of motion it once had. Otherwise, your muscle and tissue will be limited by the careful way you move post-operatively. “Muscles don’t have the intuitive knowledge to stretch and move normally unless you retrain them.”

It helps reduce inflammation. Some physical therapy and exercises are designed to reduce swelling by pumping fluid out of the affected area.

It protects you from secondary conditions. After surgery, the body not only forgets its natural capacity for motion; it may compensate for weakness, stiffness or pain with a limp or other unhealthy patterns that transfer stress to other parts of the body such as the back.

Post-operative pain provides a convenient excuse for almost anyone to skip out on physical therapy. Grant says patients are better equipped to manage pain when they discuss it with their health care provider before surgery. “The first time you do something is always the hardest, but it will get better,” she says. “Sometimes it does take longer than you expect to get back to normal, but healing pain should be very different from the pain that brought you to surgery.”

Normal pain from physical therapy should be akin to the kind of soreness you might have after vigorous exercise or stretching—not sharp, piercing pain. “If you’re having that sort of pain, you may need to back off, contact your health care provider and see if there are any modifications they would suggest,” she says. With clearance from your health care provider, heat and ice can be good tools for coping with pain during early healing and physical therapy.

Above all, physical therapy and exercise must be continued long after your post-surgical treatment plan ends. “We see lots of patients who do really well with therapy, but then stop and go back to their normal patterns,” she says. “Physical therapy gives you the tools to take care of yourself by teaching you the right exercises, but you won’t get optimal results from surgery unless you continue exercising—which is a regular habit everyone needs to stay healthy.”