The troops are coming home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Physical therapists who treat military personnel continue to help those who have served in these conflicts. Some military personnel have suffered major injuries that involve loss of limbs and burns. While others have a less visible but an all too real injury known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Physical therapists have an important role to play in treating this devastating disorder.
Warren Hucks, PT, DPT, is helping veterans recover from PTSD at the James A. Hailey Veterans Administration Hospital in Tampa, Florida. He is working on a multi-disciplinary team consisting of physical therapists, psychiatrists and psychologists at the Center for Post Deployment Health and Education. The team treats the condition as a whole body disease that affects people on multiple levels.
"The soldiers have mental and physical problems," said Hucks. "We work with the physical problems veterans are having. We work with veterans who have had prolonged exposure to combat. Some have seen combat once some have seen it many times."
One approach Hucks and his team use is the Habitual Therapy Technique. Veterans are encouraged to do things over and over. This is known as somatization of pain. As veterans start to mentally deal with the trauma of combat, they often begin to somatize pain in different parts of their body.
"At first the veterans find that pain levels increase. They take their feelings of anguish and deal with those feelings physically. We help them meet their problems head on. We show them how they can control something. We work to give them power over the pain," said Hucks. "If they have pain in their shoulder or their leg, we help them get over the pain hurdle. This mental treatment is often very difficult for people."
Hucks has been able to get veterans back to a regular physical workout schedule, something many of them enjoy. This also helps in the recovery process
Many of the patients Hucks works with are suffering tremendous mental anguish because of what they directly experienced in the wars. Often this shows itself through tremendous physical pain. "When we began treating them, we noticed they were experiencing an increase in back and knee pain as the mental treatment progressed."
Hucks said one veteran who began to recover through a workout program. "We got the man on a workout program. He started biking and eventually became involved in full body workouts. He notices no pain when he is at the gym," said Hucks. "Working out is something he has enjoyed."
When a person exercises, a person's body releases endorphins. Movement lubricates the joints and this helps abate the pain. "The veteran would tell me he had no pain after the workout. He would feel better about himself. For several after a working out he no longer had pain," said Hucks.
Physical therapists are become more effective at diagnosing and picking up on the nuances of PTSD. And they are becoming better at treating the condition.
A new poly trauma center opened in 2013 at the James A. Hailey hospital. This new facility includes two pools, an underwater treadmill, and a virtual reality treatment facility. It will provide an opportunity to treat veterans in new ways.
"The virtual reality facility will allow us to put people in a situation that we can't replicate in a gymnasium or a room. We will be able to recreate situations for veterans. This may be a traumatic situation of something they may encounter in real life," said Hucks. "We will be able to play through a lot different options. It will allow us to create a smoother transition from hospital to civilian life. We will be able to provide so much more to veterans."
As more veterans return to civilian life, physical therapists will continue to be given greater responsibility in helping them recover.
David Volz has been a health writer for 25 years. He teaches communications and public speaking at Broward College and Miami Dade College and lives in Coral Springs, Fla.