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Walk it off or go to physical therapy?

Girl running on the grass

You are running your daily route, when you misstep and twist your ankle. You stop, walk it off and decide that it feels okay enough to keep running, even if it is still hurting a bit. Fast-forward three days later and your ankle is still giving you problems, making you wonder: Is this something I need to see a doctor or physical therapist about?

“You don’t have to be in an accident or break a bone to benefit from physical therapy,” says John Hubbard, Ph.D., P.T., associate professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine. “Physical therapy works to restore any type of dysfunction that limits your ability to go about normal activities without pain and weakness, whether it’s from disease, an injury or an accident.”

If you have one of these symptoms, Hubbard says you should get checked out:

  • Pain lasting for more than 48 hours
  • Sharp, stabbing or burning pains
  • Numbness, tingling or pin-and-needles sensation
  • Any weakness or pain that does not allow you to complete tasks you normally can

Any of these symptoms can indicate a more serious injury, and may need additional care to make a full recovery. So what’s the first step? Visit a primary care physician.

“Injuries should always be evaluated by a physician first in case additional diagnostic testing, like x-rays or pain medication is needed,” Hubbard said. “During this evaluation, talk to your doctor about the possible benefits of seeing a physical therapist.” Keep in mind that referrals to physical therapists are a necessity because even though in many states, like Texas, you have direct access to physical therapists, most insurance companies will want a referral before they will cover costs.

According to Hubbard, injuries, like other medical conditions, are categorized by degrees, which indicate the seriousness of the injury. “First and second-degree injuries are not as serious and, you may opt to take care of it on your own with rest, immobilization and ice,” he said. “Then, as soon as you can walk or run without pain or limping, gradually work back to the level of the activity that caused the injury in the first place.”

But are you actually rehabilitated? Hubbard says probably not. “Your chances for a re-injury are higher and will more than likely be more serious. If you go to physical therapy, they can see you through the process, and there is more of an assurance that the injury is completely healed. Once completely healed, your risk of a re-injury becomes no greater than anyone else’s.”

In cases like this, physical therapy is beneficial because it can prevent future, more serious injuries that are more likely to need surgery later on. Don’t put off getting help until after you get a serious injury that will need surgery; go to physical therapy now to nip it in the bud.

Aches and pains aren’t always a result of sports or exercise related injuries though; back pain is a problem that plagues 31 million Americans at any given time. Our lifestyles and workplaces make back pain a multi-billion dollar industry, and Hubbard says that the main issue is that people wait too long before getting help.

So, when do you get help? “When it’s been bothering you for more than two days you should be thinking, ‘Hey, this should have gone away by itself, but it didn’t.’ You need to be checked out,” Hubbard said.

Back problems often result from malpositioning of the vertebra or tightness of muscles. Over time for a variety of reasons, the back may become curved, putting pressure on nerves and further shortening muscles and ligaments. If not treated, bones will begin to break down and nerves will become trapped, creating pain and weakness. By this point, the issue will most likely need to be corrected through surgery. However, if patients go early enough, physical therapists can restore the normal flexibility and curves of the spine so that more serious issues like a disk herniation and nerve impingements don’t develop later on.

“Physical therapy is something that people don’t generally think to utilize until they really get hurt,” Hubbard said, “but if more people went to physical therapy earlier on when the problem first starts, they could prevent more serious injuries from occurring and overall have a better quality of life.”

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