Physical Therapy During COVID-19: Keeping You Safe, Mobile and Pain-Free
Before the coronavirus pandemic, the unofficial slogan for outpatient physical therapy could’ve been, “getting you back to normal as quickly as possible!” Even in a time when we’re navigating a “new normal,” that slogan still holds, but to keep everyone as safe as possible, physical therapy looks a little different than it did this time last year.
Whether you were going to physical therapy pre-pandemic, just recently had an elective surgery that requires it, or it’s been recommended to you by your physician, it’s natural to have some apprehension about how safe something that requires some hands-on guidance and equipment could be right now. That’s why we spoke with Steve Messimer, a physical therapist on the staff of the outpatient rehabilitation program at Texas Health Arlington Memorial, to discuss changes and why you should still keep that physical therapy appointment right now.
Changes to Keep You Safe
“We were given the liberty to do what works best for our facility and our patients,” Messimer says. “While I can’t speak for every entity, that meant staggering our sessions so that each patient starts their session at a different time from one another.”
For instance, Messimer explains that they might have someone come in at 7:30 in the morning, then another patient will start their session at 7:45, while another patient will start at 8, and so on.
“The staggered start not only to allows for safe distancing but very rarely does a patient stay in one part of the facility the whole time; so the staggered start helps make sure that when we transition the patient over to another part of the facility, the place they just left is freed up and clean for the next patient,” he adds.
Thanks to those staggered start times, you’ll most likely be around fewer people as well.
“Before, it was nothing to have maybe six or seven patients in the physical therapy gym on certain days. But a lot of therapists will go in that room now and if there are three or four patients in there, they’ll think twice about it and take their patient to another part of the facility. We don’t want to create overcrowding,” he explains. “Also, each physical therapist only sees one patient at a time. If you’re on my schedule at 9 a.m., I am only seeing you at 9 a.m. and no one else until your session is over.”
In addition to staggered start times, Messimer says they have also lengthened their sessions from 45 minutes to an hour to allow for time to wipe down and sanitize all equipment before the next patient arrives.
As with many places, you will be asked to answer a travel and symptom questionnaire before your appointment, will have your temperature checked, and you will be asked to wear a mask during your appointment. But don’t worry, the same holds true for everyone.
“Everyone wears a mask — the patient, the physical therapist, the front desk staff, etc. We wear eye shields as well,” Messimer explains. “We are also required to screen each other and do temperature checks. Even before the pandemic, we’ve always stressed that if you don’t feel well, don’t come into work. Now, we add that if you’ve been possibly exposed, don’t come in. We just want to play it safe.”
Messimer says there are hand sanitizing stations at every entry point into both the building and the facility, plus around elevator banks, bathrooms and exam rooms.
“There are multiple, multiple opportunities to clean your hands,” he says. “I tell my patients every time you pass some hand sanitizer, just get yourself some to be extra safe.”
While telehealth has helped connect patients with their providers all over the world these last few months, Messimer says when it comes to physical therapy, even though it is an option, it’s not always the most beneficial. Many times, telehealth physical therapy sessions are only covered for about seven to 10 business days, and that’s consecutively, not seven visits total over the course of a few weeks or months. Because of that, he says it’s just too quick of a turnaround for many patients to see a significant benefit.
“If you’re homebound, there is in-home physical therapy, that’s always remained true even before the pandemic,” he adds. “But if you’re not homebound and you just want in-home treatment because of convenience or you’re afraid to leave the house right now, you might have a hard time convincing your insurance to cover it.”
Don’t Delay Treatment
It’s natural to still be a bit apprehensive about your physical therapy session, especially if you haven’t really left the house since the pandemic started. But Messimer says delaying treatment means delaying your recovery and wellness, and that could get you caught up in a troubling cycle.
“If you’re in pain, you avoid the things that cause you pain, and if you avoid those things for long enough, the next time you do that action, it’s only going to cause you even more pain than it did before, so you’ll just keep avoiding it even more,” he explains. “Eventually, you find yourself doing less and less while having more and more pain. We need to break that cycle. The sooner we can start, especially with things like back pain, the sooner we can hop on that road to recovery and get past the pain.”
In addition to the physical benefits of physical therapy, Messimer adds that now more than ever, his sessions can have psychological and social benefits as well.
“I’ve been told by many patients that I’m the only social interaction they have outside their home, and that’s why they love coming in for their appointments,” he says. “It does a lot for their mental well-being to be here, in addition to of course regaining mobility or alleviating pain with their physical therapy.”
Take Charge of Your Health
If you’re still having some hesitation, Messimer says to reach out to your therapist or the facility, let them know your concerns and what they’re doing to address those concerns. If you feel like you need to take a quick peek of the facility to gauge your comfortability, ask if you can, and if you see something you don’t like, point it out or go somewhere else.
“I tell this to everybody: this is your health care and you get to make the decisions,” Messimer adds. “If you get referred somewhere and you end up feeling uncomfortable going there, go somewhere that makes you feel comfortable. We’re blessed to have such a big facility. There is a lot of space to spread out, but some other places may not have the same luxury. So just check in with them and see what they’re doing to make it as safe as possible.”
To learn more about physical and occupational therapy through Texas Health, visit Rehabilitation Services.