Adventures in Physical Therapy

On Friday, I completed my last day of physical therapy. I’m not magically cured, and I probably won’t be in running shape for a long time (if ever without surgery), but I’m getting around just fine, so we’ll call a win a win.

Let’s start with the basics: Physical therapy is where you go when you don’t want to or can’t have surgery. It’s also the place you go after surgery. All of this so you can get better.

This isn’t my first rodeo. I’ve done PT before. I had a chest injury three and a half years ago, and I finally decided to do something about my back last year.

I’ve played this game before, but each round has its own quirks, so I wanted to dive in a bit.

What stayed the same?

The biggest thing is the focus on getting to muscles you’re not used to getting. When I was dealing with the chest injury, I was trying to pull my shoulders back, so there were a lot of pulling exercises that got behind my shoulder blade in a way I wasn’t used to (I actually got nauseous the first day). And that trend continued. This time I was hitting my glutes and hips in weird ways (more on the actual exercises later).

Next, there was the assumption I’d do the exercises on my own. That lasted a full week here. The problem was (kind of) yoga (ok, the problem was me being lazy). The idea is they’re little exercises you can do on your own, and long-term, that’s what you’ll have to do.

And finally, I got a new band.

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The first time I did PT, I got a yellow band. I was SO psyched they gave me a free thing (never mind I was paying for said free thing). Eventually, I got blue and black. This time, I didn’t get a band in the beginning. I was actually let down, but I already had three at home. But on the last day, they saved me and gave me a red one. Now I just need green.

I wonder if these colors are universal?

What changed?

The big difference was the clinic itself. Before, I’d done PT on campus. The first PT group I was with had a regular clinic off campus I went to once, but they were across the street from my office on campus in a smaller setup once a week, so that was a no brainer. This is the first time I’d been in a clinic. It was interesting. There was equipment everywhere (awesome) and people too (not awesome, especially when you’re doing stupid human tricks).

The people make up the next point. In a bigger clinic, there’s a bigger staff. Even when I’m only working with one person, there are 4-5 other PTs going, usually a similar number of PTAs. We’re in a bigger room but not that much bigger. There are also the staffers who handle the clerical work. I was used to the first place where there was a PT and a PT student. That’s it. Having so many people around meant you weren’t going to lack for access to people, but it also meant there was always someone who could see if you messed up (Exhibit A: on the penultimate day, I almost ate it trying to get an exercise band off my legs. And that’s how a conversation with a PT I’ve never talked to got started). I actually worked with two PTs and two PTAs. Never knew who I would see day to day.

Frequency of visits was the other big adjustment. I went three times a week for six weeks. I was used to weekly appointments. That was a much bigger time commitment, especially when I was having to drive 15 minutes (and more when they upped the intensity and I had to start going home to shower). The plus was I was basically forced into three workouts a week. There are worse things than exercising three times a week (plus 1-2 more when I was able to get into the yoga studio).

The last difference was the exercises themselves. But let’s give that a full section.

So what were you doing?

I was doing all the things.

The one consistent thing was a warmup. It started with an exercise bike, which actually hurt my left knee the first couple of times. Then they moved me to an elliptical. I hate ellipticals (and irony dictates that was one of the main final recommendations for me to do on my own).

This was sufficient to get me warm and make me a little self-conscious about returning to work without showering. Just not self-conscious enough.

Then the real work began. The real work changed a lot.

At first, it was just weird little exercises. One where I was bending my knee like was taking a step down. This progressed to standing on an actual step. And then a slightly bigger step.

Another that was an extremely abbreviate pistol squat. As I got that down, they had me dipping lower. It doesn’t sound like much, but 25 half squats on one leg get tiring.

One where I bent forward with one leg on the ground and one rising up like I was picking up a golf ball (or a screwy-looking warrior III from yoga). The weird part is they had me progress to an easier version of this for the longest time where I didn’t reach down as far. And then they added weight the last day. That fried my hammies.

I hated it the first day, but after that my favorite activity was the BOSU ball.

The first day was the wobbles. The wobbles make you feel like you’re about to be pitched off. I never got pitched off by a horse, but I was in danger of being pitched off by a piece of plastic. After that, I was a champ. The wobbles went away, and I could own that junk.

And then they had me balance on one foot. This wasn’t as bad as the first day, but when they stick you on the round side and say stand on one foot, you don’t necessarily think, “This will end well.”

The last week, I moved to using the leg press and a machine that was like an assisted jumping machine. Google tells me it was a shuttle machine. Basically, you lie down and then jump. It’s weird.

And then the core stuff. I hate the core stuff.

The core stuff was just 5-second planks for 20 rounds and then a side plank variation that consisted of me moving my leg forward and backward. That sound you heard was my glute/hip area experiencing post-traumatic stress. Eventually core got upped to doing side plank raise (or dying mermaid, as the PTA called it). That was brutal. Then another one that was a plank where I just touched alternating shoulders with alternating hands.

And finally, there was running. The last 4 weeks involved some running. Remember how I wouldn’t shower? That stopped the second they put me on the treadmill. One day, I was sweating so bad, I had to ask for a towel. I got a towel every day after that. And water.

Ultimately, I was in PT so I could run. My day-to-day life was returning to normal, but I want to be able to run (bet you never thought I’d say that with this blog title).

This is when the knee pain started to return. I wasn’t used to running, and my body couldn’t take it at first.

It wasn’t just my knee. My feet and ankles were also unappreciative of the endeavor. The first day was in cross-trainers. That was the last day for the cross-trainers. I moved to running shoes after that. Slowly (oh so slowly), the running got better and knee pain dissipated but didn’t fully go away. The way I put it to the PT was if I was running a race, I’d keep going, but if I was just on a run, I would stop. This never really got upped in the four weeks; I just got mildly better about the little they gave me.

They also gave me an extended warmup routine that will make me look like a goober if I ever do it in public.

But what about yoga and PT?

I’m glad you (didn’t actually) ask. Yoga will make you look like a champ at PT.

For real, do yoga, and then go to PT. They have you do planks and weird little exercises. If you know both, then you know I’m talking about both. The best was the BOSU ball. Aside from the first-day wobbles, I could keep pretty still, enough so to get attention from people working there who weren’t actually working with me.

That will be the extent I brag about being a PT champ.

All in all

I’d call it a 65-70% win. I’m not running yet and probably won’t for quite a while, but I got a lot of good exercises I can do on my own, and my range of motion and flexibility got a lot better over the period of PT.

Hopefully I can maintain where I’m at and maybe make a little progress as I move out of state, but you’ll just have to stay tuned.