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How Physical Therapy Can Benefit Cancer Patients

When faced with cancer, having the right medical and support team becomes exponentially  more critical.  Oncology teams skillfully lead the way in managing a myriad of symptoms and complications that arise.  In conjunction with oncology teams, physical therapy is an integral part of healthcare as they help patients regain their functional strength and balance.  Physical therapists are serviceable in managing edema and a multitude of other cancer related dysfunctions in addition. 

Edema or swelling caused by excess fluid in body tissue is a common complication that comes along with advanced cancer as well as several specific types, such as breast cancer. The incidence of pain generating edema has been estimated to be as high as 70% in these types of patients. Physical therapy can reduce edema by performing techniques such as Complete Decongestive Therapy (CDT).  CDT is considered the gold standard of treatment for lymphedema that has progressed beyond stage 1 – meaning there is visible swelling without pitting and there may be evidence of fibrosis. CDT is performed in two different ways: 

  1. Exercise to improve the muscle pumps of the lower extremity that naturally help circulation as well as for weight control.
  2. Manual therapy techniques such as compression wrapping and manual lymphatic drainage. Once the edema is under control, a supervised exercise program that has defined boundaries for optimal load for a weakened patient is critical in preventing recurrence of edema. Exercise and manual therapy strategies have been shown through many studies to provide not only short-term, but long-term benefits to patients dealing with acute and chronic lymphedema.

The American Cancer Society recommends people undergoing cancer treatment, and cancer survivors, perform consistent physical exercise to decrease fatigue and improve the ability to perform normal daily activities. Studies show that exercise can improve an individual’s coverall chances of surviving cancer. The good news is, physical therapists can design individualized exercise and treatment programs that aid in preventing or reducing many cancer related issues. 

Many people associate physical therapy with sports-related activities or musculoskeletal injuries. The truth is, physical therapists successfully treat a number of functional impairments related to issues with the heart and lungs, nerves, pelvic floor, skin and inner ear. Physical therapists play a critical role in optimizing function and helping to achieve a greater quality of life, each of which is crucial throughout a battle with cancer.

Cancer often times wreaks havoc on a patient’s body. A common and devastating side effect of radiation and chemotherapy is muscle loss and atrophy. Physical therapy is specialized in treating muscle loss and can directly assist a patient in regaining their muscle strength and improving their functional well-being long-term. 

Cancer treatments can be taxing both emotionally and physically.  Physical therapy can help shift the patient focus from negative side effects to improvement of quality of life. A study by Moser et al. (2003) demonstrates that physical therapy helps improve the four aspects of quality of life defined as physical, emotional, social, and cognitive functions. To no surprise, there is a direct correlation between the 4 aspects of quality of life and long-term survival rates of cancer.

Another study completed by Gans et al. (1991)  found that out of 500 cancer patients, 400 showed deficits in gait and balance. Because of these effects, falls are one of the leading injuries affecting the population of cancer survivors. Physical therapy can directly address balance and gait impairments and make it so that patients who are fighting cancer can go on to be mobile at home and in the community safely, thus avoiding the complications that could come with a fall history.  At Wright Physical Therapy, our physical therapists are highly trained to diagnose which balance systems are affected and then apply a plan of care focused on these deficits. 

The common deficits mentioned above are areas that need to be addressed early by a skilled physical therapist. Cancer is personal, but treating cancer and its side effects take teamwork.  Physical therapy can assist with fighting cancer in a cost effective manner and our team of skilled physical therapists would love to do just that. For more information or to schedule an appointment, please contact us at any of our locations or by visiting our website at www.wrightpt.com.