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Physical Therapy: Choose Wisely

Finding the right physical therapy regimen is the first step to feeling better

I had walked the course too slowly. She never told me to walk it as fast as I could. I had asked her if I could use my arms to help me stand up from the chair. “Do what’s most comfortable,” was her reply. Then she deducted points because I used my arms to help me stand. Her conclusion: “You’re very weak. I don’t know what we can do for you.”

You don’t talk that way to a patient looking for help. Care providers are powerful people in our lives. She could have encouraged and motivated me — but instead, she did the opposite.

Based on the nurse’s recommendations, the center designed a toothless exercise program for me that would not have challenged a grade-school kid. This was not therapy at all. Obviously, the therapists had given up on me before they even started. I had asked for one person to work with me for continuity but saw a new face every time I arrived. The treatments were not challenging; the PT staff were condescending. When I left for the last time, no one ever bothered to ask why.

I sat around at home in my gymshorts, all dressed down with nowhere to go. I remembered that my wife Meredith had liked the physical therapy she had after she tore both hamstrings while training for a marathon. The place she went was called Spears, which sounded lithe and sharp enough for me.

Within minutes of my first session there, I was sweating. I was on my back, feet atop a large rubber ball. The trainer would push or pull or move the ball diagonally. My job was to sense the direction and resist. He understood my physical weaknesses and pushed and prodded, getting me to endure difficult exercises to strengthen muscles. There was no condescension, only professionalism. The trainers wanted feedback: “Talk to me,” mine demanded. “How does it feel?”

The lesson? Physical therapy can be valuable, but shop carefully. Respect is a powerful motivating force. I am content with the blood, sweat and tears — and I’m getting better.

Emmy-winning TV producer and author Richard Cohen has lived with multiple sclerosis for more than 30 years. He writes bi-weekly about living a full life with a chronic disease.

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