Why at-home physical therapy is just as important as clinical time

Healing from an injury takes time and continuous effort, and while a physical therapist provides instruction and guidance on exercises during the clinical sessions, the process doesn’t stop when you walk out the clinic doors. Continuing the work at home is crucial to recovering faster, making your next clinical session time more effective, and building resilience against future injuries.

“There’s no use in someone coming to the clinic one time a week and not doing anything at home,” says Scott Porter, a performance physical therapist at EXOS. “We’ll just end up back at square one when they come in for a follow-up visit.”

Porter encourages his patients and athletes to get into a 24-hour-a-day mindset: If a clinical session lasts one hour, there are still 23 hours throughout the day to focus on recovery, which includes working on any exercises the physical therapist assigns as well as improving sleeping patterns and nutrition habits.

Once a home exercise program is created, the challenge becomes maintaining it every day, especially when days are busy, progress is slow, or regression occurs, says Porter.

Use these five tips to keep your at-home physical therapy routine on track.

1. Set realistic goals.

Depending on the injury, a home routine will consist of two to three daily exercises during a 15- to 20-minute window. Typically, the exercises are consistent with what’s practiced in the clinical session so you can easily remember the techniques and instructor cues.

But if the exercises feel overwhelming or like a burden in the day, you’re less likely to complete — or even attempt — them. Discuss any limitations with your physical therapist so you can set attainable goals and find ways to incorporate the routine into your day. Or talk to your physical therapist about adjusting your original goals, which might include decreasing the number of exercises or changing your surroundings.

2. Focus on the positive instead of the pain.

Centering your attention around what hurts is a discouraging mindset, says Porter. Instead, focus on what movements make you feel better and continue practicing them. “When patients are put into more positive situations or environments, and the feedback is more positive, they pick up on that positivity and subconsciously start to feel better,” says Porter.

When you’re explaining your pain to your physical therapist, use descriptive words, like tingling, sharp, or stiff to describe how the injury is feeling. That way your physical therapist can modify the exercises to lessen any discomfort, rather than telling you to move a subjective number of repetitions.

Once you’ve created a strategy to manage your pain, turn your focus to your goal. Concentrating on tangible goals, like working on a basic step-up to eventually climb a flight of stairs at home, can be a great motivator and help the brain focus on the big picture of recovery, says Porter.

3. Communicate with your physical therapist.

If an exercise is aggravating your injury, let your physical therapist know right away. They can suggest modifications when something feels off to avoid further injuries. And take notes about how you feel when you do your exercises at home to discuss during your next session.

Any additional information the physical therapist receives outside of the limited clinical hours allows them to plan better, personalize more, and make your sessions more effective. “The more your physical therapist gets to know you, the better they can fine-tune your home exercises,” says Porter.

As you progress, movements get more challenging to account for your new mobility levels, and time spent with the physical therapist will be even more important.

4. Ask your physical therapist about technology.

The days of taking home a printed pamphlet with directions are going the way of the dodo. New apps allow physical therapists to share the directions and step-by-step video tutorials for at-home exercises. Then you can set up daily reminders so you don’t forget to do your exercises. Some even have features where you can directly message your physical therapist with any questions.

But you don’t need an app to take advantage of technology. Physical therapist Zachary Cogen will often take a video on his client’s phone of the exercises done in the clinical session while talking through the sets in the background, so it’s easy to reference at home or on the go.

“The goal is to leverage all the tools we have at our disposal and come back in for the next session without losing anything we gained,” he says.

5. Think broadly about your injury’s impact.

Making the connection between how an injury affects spending time or interacting with friends, family, or teammates can help you develop a desire to recover faster, says Porter.

If you’re struggling picking up your kids or constantly cancelling plans with friends because of pain, think about how much richer your life would be if you were pain-free and able to participate the way you want. This emotional connection to your recovery goal can act as your greatest motivator and will help you stay committed to doing your home exercise program.

Cogen adds that ultimately how well you recover is up to the amount of work you put in. He says, “It’s about taking charge of your own body.”

Start your own physical therapy recovery journey by finding an EXOS location near you, and check out recovery tools from Hyperice to help you along the way.

About the Author

Lauren Katims

Lauren Katims is a Northern California-based writer and editor.

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