3 Surprising Conditions Your Physical Therapist Can Treat

Physical therapy is good for more than aches and pains

You might think that PTs are there just to help you recover from injury. But they can also help you find relief from common pains and ailments.

You probably wouldn’t think twice about going to physical therapy for a sprained ankle or recovery from knee surgery. But did you know that physical therapy can also help with headaches, constipation, and vertigo?

Here’s a look at how physical therapy might help you find relief from these three common ailments.

1. Headaches

Headaches come in many forms, but according to the Cleveland Clinic, tension headaches are the most common. These often feel like you have a tight band wrapped around your head. The pain may be caused by muscle tightness in the back of your head or neck. It might also be caused by a muscle imbalance, where weaknesses in some muscles cause others to work overtime.

If you have frequent tension headaches, a physical therapist can help. “Improving body awareness and learning about why we hurt can be huge for any kind of pain, including headache pain,” says Erin Babineau. She’s a board-certified orthopedic specialist at Motion, a physical therapy clinic in St. Paul, Minnesota. She’s also a co-founder and co-host of the podcast Body, Brain and Pain: Community Healing Through Two Physical Therapists.

When you visit a physical therapist for pain from a tension headache, you’ll learn how to isolate certain muscles in your jaw or shoulders, so you can experience what it feels like to flex and then relax them.

The practice, which is called neuromuscular reeducation, can improve your awareness of how you’re using your muscles. That will help you deliberately relax those that are overactive. This is key to calming pain and feeling better, Babineau says, especially when combined with other physical therapy treatments, such as stretching and massage.

2. Constipation

Physical therapy may not come to mind for bowel issues either. But maybe it should. Your physical therapist can help you get things moving.

How? By teaching you how to use the right muscles and correcting your bowel mechanics, Babineau says.

According to Harvard Medical School, constipation has two possible causes. One is a slow-moving colon, which can be treated with laxatives. The other is what's called a pelvic floor dysfunction. That’s where a physical therapist can help.

Whatever your gender, the pelvis is home to several important organs, including your bladder and rectum. These organs store your body’s waste until you go to the bathroom. Your pelvic floor consists of the muscles that support those organs. When the muscles aren’t working properly, you have pelvic floor dysfunction.

One way a professional will help is through biofeedback. With this technique, a trained pelvic health physical therapist generally inserts a finger either vaginally or rectally to check whether your muscles are too tense or weak. He or she can then guide you in relaxing your pelvic floor muscles while applying pressure from the muscles in your stomach.

As an alternative to a finger, some therapists may place electronic sensors on your stomach and insert others into your anus or vagina. Then they’ll ask you to relax certain muscles, and you'll be able to see on a screen if those muscles are relaxed. You get immediate visual feedback, which helps you connect the effort to the result.

Biofeedback is very effective. A study published in the journal Gastroenterology found that it worked better than laxatives. After six months, 80% of biofeedback patients showed major improvement, compared to just 22% of patients who used laxatives. And the benefits were still there for two years after treatment.

Along with biofeedback, there are other ways your physical therapist can help, says Babineau. She or he may teach you breathing, strengthening, or relaxation exercises to retrain critical muscles. By making these techniques part of your daily routine, you may be able to eliminate stress and discomfort from your bathroom routine.

3. Vertigo

This condition makes people feel dizzy and off-balance. You may also have trouble focusing your eyes. Ear infections, diabetes, and neurological problems, including stroke or brain injury, can all trigger episodes of vertigo. As a result, about 70% of people 65 and older experience it at some point, according to The Triological Society, a group that promotes research into diseases of the ears, nose, and throat.

Vertigo is so common that there’s a physical therapy specialty to deal with it. It's called vestibular rehabilitation therapy, and it usually begins with an assessment, says Gene Shirokobrod. He’s co-founder and CEO of Recharge Modern Health and Fitness in Ellicott City, Maryland.

In vestibular rehab, a specialist may test the strength and flexibility of your arms and legs. They also may check your mobility, especially with your neck. Another test involves checking your gaze stability — how well you see while your head is moving.

Depending on the findings, your physical therapist will teach you exercises to help deal with your symptoms. For example, if vision stability is an issue, you may practice looking at an object at eye level while turning your head from side to side.

Other treatment options include stretching and strengthening moves to improve your balance and posture. You might practice walking heel to toe or balancing while sitting on a large exercise ball. Or you may learn new ways to react when you feel suddenly off balance. All these strategies can help prevent falls, according to the American Physical Therapy Association.

Getting physical therapy covered

Insurance coverage for physical therapy varies. Most private insurance plans cover it without requiring a referral from your primary health care provider, while federally funded insurance plans such as Medicare only cover it if your health care provider says it’s medically necessary.

But this varies by state and plan, so be sure to call your insurance company before booking your appointment. The important thing is that you find the relief you need.

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