Dealing with Repetitive Stress Injuries as a Physical Therapist

Occupational stress and hazards have now become a prevalent issue in the healthcare industry. Physical therapists (PTs), among other medical professionals, are routinely exposed to stress injuries as a result of increased and physically taxing occupational demands.

They are often afflicted with repetitive work-related musculoskeletal disorders due to physical exertion, long hours on the job, constant stream of patients during the day, non-ergonomic working conditions and awkward postures during treatments.

In this article, we’ve put together everything you need to know about the various risk factors and strategies used by PTs to cope and minimize the effects and risks of stress injuries and musculoskeletal disorders.

Risk Factors Associated With Work-related Repetitive Stress Injuries Among Physical Therapists

1. Activities

Several studies revealed that performing manual orthopedic techniques are highly associated with increased risk of neck, shoulders, elbow and wrists injuries. Lifting dependent and heavy patients, assisting them during gait activities or having to move them passively, and sudden movements and falls by patients are also one of the leading factors related to the development of musculoskeletal disorders such as disc-related diseases of the lumbar spine.

2. Therapist-related

Working in awkward and stationary positions for long periods and frequent truck flexion and rotation are among the most common causes of musculoskeletal disorders among PTs. Incorrectly using body mechanics and repeated bending and twisting also exacerbate upper and lower back problems.

3. Workload and environment-related

Work scheduling issues and lack of sufficient rest breaks during the day exert a significant effect on the frequency and severity of neck, elbow, shoulder, upper back, wrist and hand injuries. Non-ergonomic conditions such as narrow work area and improper tools also add physical stress. Furthermore, PTs continue to work despite injury or pain because of the continuous influx of patients.

How do PTs cope and minimize the effects and risks of work-related repetitive stress injuries?

PTs are in daily contact with individuals who often have traumatic injuries and debilitating illnesses. The ultimate goal of helping patients regain mobility and independence, however, inevitably takes a huge physical toll on their bodies.

To well-manage and reduce work-related strain on their bodies, most PTs employ the following strategies:

1. “Self-protective behavior” strategy which pertains to the use of more ergonomic tools, aids and equipment such as height-adjustable beds or plinth, lifting belts, splints, stools on casters and slide boards

2. Outsourcing strategy through seeking help of physical therapists assistants when handling a heavy patient and performing physically stressful tasks. By doing so, this minimizes the weight load reducing the risk of developing any injuries.

3. Preventive strategies which are meant to change the environment or technique so as to avoid or reduce PT’s physical trauma. These include:

  • Warming up prior to performing manual orthopedic techniques
  • Taking pauses regularly to stretch and change posture
  • Having breaks or recovery time between patients
  • Alternate between more and less physically demanding patients
  • Modifying bed height, therapist’s or patient’s position

4. Reactive strategies are used by a therapist in response to potential injury or perceived risk of aggravating musculoskeletal pains.

  • Stopping a treatment if it causes or aggravates body pain
  • Selecting techniques that will not cause or aggravate injuries
  • Using electro-therapy instead of manual techniques whenever possible
  • Using a different body part to administer other manual technique to prevent overuse of upper limbs

5. For worsening physical conditions, PTs may opt to

  • Seek treatment from a colleague or other physiotherapist
  • Lodge a workers’ compensation claim and take a sick leave
  • Modify lifestyle including leisure activities and remove stressors
  • Change their specialty area (especially for those with worst cases)

Given the nature of their profession, physical therapists are highly exposed to several risk factors of repetitive occupational injuries including musculoskeletal disorders. The lifetime and increased prevalence of these injuries among PTs demands for a range of strategies to deal with the risks posed by their work.

Aside from having these strategies at their disposal, PTs need to ensure that they are taking good care of themselves by having sufficient rest days, making time for their health and fitness, striving for a good work-life balance, and seeking help and counseling if necessary.

As a physical therapist, you have the noble task of improving the quality of life by helping people regain their ability to move, reduce or manage pain, and independence as well as achieve their fitness goals, prevent disability, and lead active lives. However, you have to remember that you cannot pour from an empty cup and therefore must look after yourself too.

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