October 1st marks the first day of National Physical Therapy Month, a time to raise awareness of the key role that physical therapists play in helping people improve mobility, find relief from pain, and live healthier, more physically able lives.
Members of the ALS multidisciplinary care team, physical therapists are critical for a person living with ALS. As the disease progresses, most people gradually lose their ability to use their arms and legs as their muscles weaken. Physical therapists help patients maintain as much independent function and functionality as they are capable of at different points throughout the disease to improve their quality of life.
“Physical therapy as a practice helps people improve their mobility and function by determining what limitations need to be addressed and how best to address them,” says Renée Hetzler, PT, DPT, physical therapist at the University of Rochester Medical Center’s multidisciplinary ALS and Huntington Disease Clinics. “Physical therapists are movement experts. We guide people towards their goals of being able to do any activity that is important to them by using exercise prescription, education, and equipment recommendations.”
While physical therapy cannot halt the inevitable loss of muscle strength for people living with ALS, the practice can help them maintain as much independent function patients are capable of at different points throughout the disease progression. Therapists often prescribe equipment such as braces or walking devices early in the disease that help people maintain the ability to walk longer.
“As weakness progresses, we recommend a variety of other equipment to help with transfers, being able to get in and out of bed, being able to use the bathroom safely, and getting in and out of cars,” she said. “We discuss any home modifications that may be necessary as the disease progresses, keeping in mind that it is best to plan ahead with a rapidly progressing disease.” When people lose the ability to walk, they also help them get into custom wheelchairs that will help keep them comfortable while allowing them to continue to move around on their own.
Dr. Hetzler says they also prescribe exercises such as moderate strengthening to maintain function and stretching to help reduce joint stiffness and pain. “As a person becomes more reliant on caregivers, we help educate caregivers on the best techniques to help them take over the responsibilities of stretching, transfers, and performing basic daily tasks safely,” she said. “Our ultimate goal for people with ALS is to help them maintain function and quality of life as the disease progresses.”