What is Spine Rehabilitation?

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  • Written By: Niki Foster
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 05 May 2020
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Spine rehabilitation is an essential part of recovery from spinal pain, injury, or surgery. The process is directed by a physical therapist (PT,) and helps the patient rebuild strength and motility in the spine, and develop habits to keep the spine healthy. Spine rehabilitation includes exercise and functional training, as well as pain management.

On a patient's first visit to a physical therapist, he or she will be asked to provide information regarding the spinal pain or injury to be treated. For example, the patient should explain the nature and severity of the pain, and how it interferes with his or her daily activities. The physical therapist will also conduct an examination, noting the patient's posture and measuring range of motion (ROM) and flexibility. The physical therapist will palpate, or feel, the soft tissues around the spine to check for inflammation, and may examine nerve function through reflex or sensation tests.

Based on the results of the examination, the physical therapist will design a personalized spine rehabilitation plan for the patient. Treatment generally includes pain management, exercise, and functional training. Spine rehabilitation requires the patient to follow a treatment plan at home, in addition to office visits.

Pain management for the spine may include rest, especially in the beginning of the treatment program. The patient may have to wear a brace to take pressure off injured or recovering muscles. The physical therapist may work with the patient to determine which positions are most therapeutic when resting. Ice and/or heat applications may be used to treat spinal pain. The physical therapist may also help relieve pain through treatments including ultrasound, massage, mobilization or movement of the joints or muscles, and traction or stretching.

The exercise portion of spine rehabilitation has a number of goals: flexibility, stabilization, coordination, and general fitness. The first three goals target the injured areas and related muscle groups. Flexibility training helps the patient develop maximum range of motion, allowing for pain reduction, and a lower chance of re-injury. Stabilization consists of exercises to strengthen the muscles supporting the spine, reducing stress on the spine throughout the day. Coordination exercises train spinal muscles to work together in groups, contributing to safe movement and overall spinal health. Finally, general fitness conditioning, consisting of aerobic exercise, helps to relive pain through the release of endorphins, and contributes to muscle function and strength.

Functional training teaches the patient to move and hold the body in ways that contribute to continued spinal health. The patient will learn healthy postures when standing, sitting, and resting, and exercise will help the patient to maintain good posture more easily. The patient will also learn body mechanics, healthy ways to move the body when performing daily activities like walking and lifting. Finally, the patient will be instructed in ergonomics, or how to maintain healthy posture and movement at work and during other heavily repeated activities.

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