When compared head-to-head, active exercise-based therapies are both less expensive and more effective than passive ones. In some instances, exercise is even as effective as surgery. In one study of 350 patients who had meniscal tears, there was no difference after six months between the patients who’d had surgery and those who’d used active physical therapy. Other research is currently exploring whether the same might be true for partial rotator cuff tears.
Instead, what’s emerged from decades of research as a clear winner — whether it’s used to treat low back pain or frozen shoulder or knee ligament injuries — is good old-fashioned exercise.
“We have gotten quite a bit more evidence for the effectiveness of exercise in both facilitating recovery and also protecting people from different kinds of injuries or diseases,” said James Gordon, chair of the division of biokinesiology and physical therapy at the University of Southern California.
Marilyn Moffat, a professor of physical therapy at New York University, agreed, saying that for every type of patient seen by physical therapists, “whether it’s patients with cardiovascular disease, whether it’s patients with diabetes, whether it’s patients with orthopedic problems or fibromyalgia or neuromuscular disorders or falls or frailty or obesity, the literature out there in terms of exercise interventions is so strong for every single one.”
Changing the Field, Slowly
These days, most physical therapists recognize that treatments should consist of exercises that improve strength and flexibility, as well as ergonomic adjustments to people’s work or workout routines to prevent future injuries. However, some practitioners argue that passive treatments still have their place and they are still taught in physical therapy doctorate programs.
James Irrgang, chair of the physical therapy department at the University of Pittsburgh, said he wasn’t surprised there is still a gap between what evidence shows is effective and what some clinical practices do. Across medicine, it traditionally takes 17 years for research to make its way to the clinic. As a result, Dr. Irrgang said that much of the emphasis in physical therapy now is on implementation: “How do we get the clinicians to adhere to the best available evidence?”
He hopes the answer is through education. In 2006, Dr. Irrgang — who at the time was the president of the Academy of Orthopaedic Physical Therapy — helped develop guidelines in the form of a report card for diagnostic and treatment techniques commonly used by physical therapists, based on the best scientific evidence.
This content was originally published here.