Motion Granted

Less than two years after a car accident that shattered her lower limbs, Johns Island resident Lynn Green—pictured here at Johns Island County Park—enjoys long strolls, walking more than a mile every day.

Written by Jennifer Brunnemer Slaton – Photographs by Mira Adwell

Taped to the wall of Johns Island resident Lynne Green’s bedroom, right next to the light switch, is a piece of paper.  To someone else it might look out of place.  To her, it’s become a familiar, respected part of her daily routine.

“I’m going to be 60 on February 18 and I feel like I’m back in my 40s,” says Green. “My body’s in good shape. I do well, as long as I do my exercises.” Those exercises—the 40-minute circuit that is posted to her wall—are an ongoing part of the physical therapy regimen that helped Green walk again after a devastating car accident in 2018. To avoid hitting a driver that had veered into her lane, Green swerved off the road, slamming into an oak tree at 55 miles per hour. “I ended up under the dash of my car,” she says. Nine surgeries ensued that year to replace her shattered knees with plastic joints, her bones with titanium rods.

The surgeries rebuilt her body but left her in a wheelchair. Phase two of her recovery was regular in-home physical therapy with Roper St. Francis Healthcare physical therapist Tara Pickett. “Broadly defined, physical therapists are movement experts,” explains Pickett. “If people are having difficulty or pain with movement of any type, we can often get them moving better and improve their quality of life,” she says. And that intervention can be life changing—just ask Green, who, within eight weeks of starting physical therapy after several reconstruction surgeries, moved from wheelchair to walker then from walker to cane.

Who It Benefits

When people hear the term physical therapy, they often think of something needed after an accident or surgery to aid with recovery. And that’s true: “PT can absolutely help a person recover from injury due to trauma or from surgeries,” says Pickett, noting Green’s case as an example. “But there are many other scenarios in which physical therapy can be helpful, as well. For instance, working with a PT before a marathon or triathlon can help you achieve your goal and ward off potential injuries as you train,” says Pickett.

Physical therapy can also deliver dramatic results for women experiencing postpartum pain or incontinence, which Pickett benefitted from firsthand after giving birth to her daughter. “I went from being incontinent, unable to run and having pain with almost any activity to getting back to running, being physically active with my kids and regaining my life back free from pain,” she says.

Other specialties include vestibular, meant for people who have vertigo or dizziness, as well as cardiovascular and pulmonary PT. The latter are for those who have suffered heart attack, have heart disease, want to improve cardiac health or have pulmonary conditions such as COPD. Some therapists specialize in oncology, helping people who have been diagnosed with or are recovering from cancer. Others focus on brain injuries and stroke rehabilitation.

Pickett is board certified in geriatrics. “It’s important to have a strength regimen to stay active later in life,” she says. Indeed, Americans aged 65 and older have a one in four chance of falling each year, according to the National Council on Aging. And every 19 minutes, an older adult dies as a result of a fall. “We all want to be healthy and live independently in our older years, and balance, which physical therapists can help you achieve, is crucial to that,” she says.

Finally, one of the most widespread types of pain—back pain (which, at any given time, affects roughly a quarter of people in the U.S.)—can often be remedied by physical therapy. “Using physical therapy as a first-line treatment could save you the expense and possible complications of surgery,” says Pickett. For example, a 2015 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found physical therapy to be equally as effective as surgery for lumbar spinal stenosis.

How It Works

So what’s the method behind the magic? “Most people experience pain because there’s some sort of dysfunction or asymmetry in the way they’re moving,” says Pickett, who notes that our bodies are often dominant or stronger on one side, which can affect how we walk, run or even stand. “A chief goal of physical therapy is to address and correct issues with posture or asymmetry; in doing so, we see big improvements in mobility and level of pain.”

Physical therapists use different tactics to bring about that improvement, including prescribing exercises and applying manual therapy. Occasionally manual therapy can feel like massage, but more often it’s a type of hands-on guidance during exercise to help patients better perceive how their muscles should behave in certain activities, explains Pickett. Physical therapists may also use ice, heat or pulsed or continuous ultrasound waves to stimulate deep tissue to help it heal.

Pickett likes to integrate breathing exercises focusing on the diaphragm to improve the way the body functions, as well. “This morning I had a 67-year-old patient blowing up a balloon and working on her breathing pattern with the goal of increasing core strength,” she says. “Your diaphragm affects the mobility of your ribcage, which attaches to your spine, so it’s probably the most important core muscle we have.”

Physical therapist Tara Pickett (right) leads Lynn Green through PT exercises.

What to Expect

Whatever your reason for seeking physical therapy, your first visit (whether that’s in a hospital, clinic or in your home) is typically an hour and will entail a full-body assessment. “We look to see how well you move and how much range of motion your joints have,” says Pickett. That initial visit often includes strength tests to see how strong certain muscle groups are, as well as a balance assessment. “Based on these evaluations we create a plan of care.” Subsequent appointments may be recommended anywhere from three times a week to once every two weeks, and often include a warm-up, a series of exercises and manual therapy, if needed.

Normal healing can take anywhere from four to 12 weeks, says Pickett. “If someone is young, active and healthy, with an ankle sprain or a muscle tear, they’re usually on the lower end, from four to eight weeks.” If someone has a chronic disease, such as diabetes, which can slow healing, it can take closer to 12 to 16 weeks. Regardless, progress should start quickly. “Ideally you should start seeing results within the first two to four visits,” says Pickett. “If not, your therapist will likely try a new approach.”

With a bit of patience, physical therapy patients can experience truly life-changing results. “You’ve got to put the work in to get it back out,” says Green. “No one can do it for you. But it is 1,000 percent worth the investment, “she adds. “My absolute favorite thing about my job is being able to help someone during a difficult moment of their life, letting them see the light at the end of the tunnel and being there with them every step of the way,” says Pickett.

Common Myths about Physical Therapy

Roper St. Francis Healthcare physical therapist Tara Pickett clears up these common misconceptions about the field

MYTH: Any healthcare professional can perform physical therapy.
TRUTH: “Physical therapy is a specialized field. In the U.S., you have to receive your clinical doctorate degree in physical therapy—a three-year continuous program after an undergraduate degree with clinical rotations.”

MYTH: I can do physical therapy myself.
TRUTH: “We’re all guilty these days of Googling everything, but some of the therapy recommendations I see online can be truly harmful. Getting the right treatment program makes a difference; it decreases healing time and improves the quality of your outcome.”

MYTH: I need a referral to see a physical therapist.
TRUTH: “One of the great advancements in this field is ‘Direct Access,’ meaning you don’t need a referral to see a physical therapist for the first 30 days of treatment. Not all states have it, but South Carolina does.”

MYTH: Surgery is my only option.
TRUTH: “There are circumstances in which surgery may be the best option, but until you’ve tried physical therapy and improving your postural patterns, you never know for sure. Many orthopedic surgeons we work with recommend trying physical therapy first.”

MYTH: Physical therapy is painful.
TRUTH: “Ideally it’s not. We work on methods to control pain, help with it during the process and strive to eliminate it.”