The Spine Treatment You Should Know About: Physical Therapy

Oct. 16, 2018

Exercise balls on a rack.

When physical therapy (PT) is part of a neurosurgical spine center like ours, you might think it’s used only to help patients recover from surgery. And while that is a great use of the service, physical therapy offers so much more. That message is underscored this October by the American Physical Therapy Association, which established October as National Physical Therapy Month. With that in mind, we’d like to share with you how the physical therapists here at The Spine Hospital at the Neurological Institute of New York help patients restore spine health in myriad ways.

What Our Physical Therapists Do

Our nationally recognized physical therapy team includes Evan Johnson, D.P.T., Director of Physical Therapy, and Senior Physical Therapist Rami Said, D.P.T. They specialize in treating, diagnosing and preventing spinal issues as well as other musculoskeletal problems throughout the body in adults and adolescents. As biomechanical experts, they analyze movement and test muscle strength, flexibility and joint mechanics. They view their findings through the lens of decades of clinical experience, education and research in their field. Working as educators, they tailor their hands-on and home-treatment plans to fit each patient’s unique circumstances.

While they do utilize physical interventions such as exercise, joint mobilization, soft tissue massage and treatments including heat and ice, they primarily see themselves as collaborators in health with their patients.

Dr. Johnson and Dr. Said spend a lot of time educating patients on how to prevent injury, manage symptoms and restore spine health. Common topics include whether you should apply ice or heat to relieve back pain, and how to avoid tech neck. Dr. Johnson even provided posture tips for The Wall Street Journal.

Our physical therapists also conduct research into questions like how a golf swing can lead to low back pain. Or the effects of hip joint manipulation. They also collaborate with neurosurgeons and other physicians throughout The Spine Hospital and New York City to determine how the disciplines can work together to provide the best care possible for patients.

What Our Physical Therapists Treat

Because their offices are housed in a spine-focused facility, most of Dr. Johnson and Dr. Said’s patients come in with a variety of spinal problems. Many of them are in pain, often chronic pain. (Pain is considered chronic when it lasts at least three months.) Back and neck pain can be the result of a spectrum of spinal problems, including spinal stenosis, scoliosis, herniated disc, sciatica and ankylosing spondylitis, and sometimes the best solution is surgery. More often, though, the cause of spinal pain, low back pain in particular, is unclear and is referred to as “non-specific.”

When this is the case, physical therapy may be the best treatment option. Unfortunately, all too often patients instead rely on strong pain medications, such as opioids, to manage their symptoms. While the medications can be beneficial (especially after surgery) they aren’t always the best long term solution.

In light of the current opioid epidemic, the American Physical Therapy Association decided to focus this October’s awareness month on physical therapy as an alternative to opioids for treatment of chronic pain conditions. You can learn more about their award-winning #ChoosePT campaign on their website here.

This doesn’t mean physical therapy is always the solution when it comes to back and neck pain. Sometimes the best solution is surgery alone or surgery in combination with physical therapy. That is why the physical therapists here at the Spine Hospital work in concert with neurosurgeons. This team approach casts a wider net to help more people suffering from an array of spinal conditions.

Constance’s story is the perfect example of the value of physical therapists and surgeons working together.

Constance’s Story

Constance had been practicing judo since she was a child. And nothing had stopped her from taking part in the sport she loves, not even a scoliosis diagnosis at the age of 13. She eventually became a certified coach for USA Judo, the sport’s Olympic organization. When her shoulder started hurting, she made an appointment to see Dr. Johnson.

The shoulder pain turned out to be an overuse injury, but while under Dr. Johnson’s care, Constance turned 50 and had a routine bone density test done. The test revealed a disturbing image of her spine. She showed the images to Dr. Johnson, and after reviewing them, he asked her if he could show them to spine surgeon Dr. Peter Angevine, an expert in scoliosis.

Dr. Angevine said I was proof that you never diagnose an image, you diagnose a patient, because based on what the film showed, I shouldn’t have been able to do what I was doing,” said Constance, referring to judo.

So her care team worked out a plan. She could continue to practice judo, and every year, she’d have an X-ray of her spine. She’d also continue physical therapy. By the fourth year of monitoring her spine, Dr. Angevine told her nothing had changed so they could stop the annual X-ray. He said she should come back if she experiences pain.

“One of the things I appreciate about [The Spine Hospital ] is the integrated approach between the physicians and the physical therapists,” said Constance. “They work together. They are at each other’s beck and call.”

You can read more about Constance and her story in this post.

Your Turn

We hope you learned a little more about how physical therapy can help restore spine health and prevent future injury. You can continue learning about physical therapy by reading some of our favorite posts below:

To be part of the social media conversation this October, use the hashtag #ChoosePT from the American Physical Therapy Association.

Learn more about Director of Physical Therapy Dr. Johnson at his bio page here.

Learn more about Senior Physical Therapist Dr. Said at his bio page here.

Learn more about spine surgeon Dr. Angevine at his bio page here.

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