Guide to Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) Tear

An anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear is an injury to the knee commonly affecting athletes, such as soccer players, basketball players, skiers, and gymnasts. Nonathletes can also experience an ACL tear due to injury or accident. Approximately 200,000 ACL injuries are diagnosed in the United States each year. It is estimated that there are 95,000 ruptures of the ACL and 100,000 ACL reconstructions performed per year in the United States. Approximately 70% of ACL tears in sports are the result of noncontact injuries, and 30% are the result of direct contact (player-to-player, player-to-object). Women are more likely than men to experience an ACL tear. Physical therapists are trained to help individuals with ACL tears reduce pain and swelling, regain strength and movement, and return to desired activities.

What is an ACL Tear?

The ACL is one of the major bands of tissue (ligaments) connecting the thigh bone (femur) to the shin bone (tibia) at the knee joint. It can tear if you:

  • Twist your knee while keeping your foot planted on the ground.

  • Stop suddenly while running.

  • Suddenly shift your weight from one leg to the other.

  • Jump and land on an extended (straightened) knee.

  • Stretch the knee farther than its usual range of movement.

  • Experience a direct hit to the knee.

ACLAttachment_Small.jpg

ACL Attachment: See More Detail

Back to Top

How Does it Feel?

When you tear the ACL, you may feel a sharp, intense pain or hear a loud "pop" or snap. You might not be able to walk on the injured leg because you can’t support your weight through your knee joint. Usually, the knee will swell immediately (within minutes to a few hours), and you might feel that your knee "gives way" when you walk or put weight on it.

Back to Top

How Is It Diagnosed?

Immediately following an injury, you may be examined by a physical therapist, athletic trainer, or orthopedic surgeon. If you see your physical therapist first, your therapist will conduct a thorough evaluation that includes reviewing your health history. Your physical therapist will ask:

  • What you were doing when the injury occurred.

  • If you felt pain or heard a "pop" when the injury occurred.

  • If you experienced swelling around the knee in the first 2 to 3 hours following the injury.

  • If you felt your knee buckle or give out when you tried to get up from a chair, walk up or down stairs, or change direction while walking.

Your physical therapist may perform gentle "hands-on" tests to determine the likelihood that you have an ACL tear, and may use additional tests to assess possible damage to other parts of your knee.

An orthopedic surgeon may order further tests, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), to confirm the diagnosis and rule out other possible damage to the knee.

Surgery

Most people who sustain an ACL tear will undergo surgery to repair the tear; however, some people may avoid surgery by modifying their physical activity to relieve stress on the knee. A select group can actually return to vigorous physical activity following rehabilitation without having surgery.

Your physical therapist, together with your surgeon, can help you determine if nonoperative treatment (rehabilitation without surgery) is a reasonable option for you. If you elect to have surgery, your physical therapist will help you prepare both for surgery and to recover your strength and movement following surgery.

 

Back to Top

How Can a Physical Therapist Help?

Once an ACL tear has been diagnosed, you will work with your surgeon and physical therapist to decide if you should have surgery, or if you can recover without surgery. If you don’t have surgery, your physical therapist will work with you to restore your muscle strength, agility, and balance, so you can return to your regular activities. Your physical therapist may teach you ways to modify your physical activity in order to put less stress on your knee. If you decide to have surgery your physical therapist can help you before and after the procedure.

Treatment Without Surgery

Current research has identified a specific group of patients (called "copers") who have the potential for healing without surgery following an ACL tear. These patients have injured only the ACL, and have experienced no episodes of the knee "giving out" following the initial injury. If you fall into this category, based on the specific tests your physical therapist will conduct, your therapist will design an individualized physical therapy treatment program for you. It may include treatments such as gentle electrical stimulation applied to the quadriceps muscle, muscle strengthening, and balance training.

Treatment Before Surgery

If your orthopedic surgeon determines that surgery is necessary, your physical therapist can work with you before and after your surgery. Some surgeons refer their patients to a physical therapist for a short course of rehabilitation before surgery. Your physical therapist will help you decrease your swelling, increase the range of movement of your knee, and strengthen your thigh muscles (quadriceps).

Treatment After Surgery

Your orthopedic surgeon will provide postsurgery instructions to your physical therapist, who will design an individualized treatment program based on your specific needs and goals. Your treatment program may include:

Bearing weight. Following surgery, you will use crutches to walk. The amount of weight you are allowed to put on your leg and how long you use the crutches will depend on the type of reconstructive surgery you have received. Your physical therapist will design a treatment program to meet your needs and gently guide you toward full weight bearing.

Icing and compression. Immediately following surgery, your physical therapist will control your swelling with a cold application, such as an ice sleeve, that fits around your knee and compresses it.

Bracing. Some surgeons will give you a brace to limit your knee movement (range of motion) following surgery. Your physical therapist will fit you with the brace and teach you how to use it safely. Some athletes will be fitted for braces as they recover and begin to return to their sports activities.

Movement exercises. During your first week following surgery, your physical therapist will help you begin to regain motion in the knee area, and teach you gentle exercises you can do at home. The focus will be on regaining full movement of your knee. The early exercises help with increasing blood flow, which also helps reduce swelling.

Electrical stimulation. Your physical therapist may use electrical stimulation to help restore your thigh muscle strength, and help you achieve those last few degrees of knee motion.

Strengthening exercises. In the first 4 weeks after surgery, your physical therapist will help you increase your ability to put weight on your knee, using a combination of weight-bearing and non-weight-bearing exercises. The exercises will focus on your thigh muscles (quadriceps and hamstrings) and might be limited to a specific range of motion to protect the new ACL. During subsequent weeks, your physical therapist may increase the intensity of your exercises and add balance exercises to your program.

Balance exercises. Your physical therapist will guide you through exercises on varied surfaces to help restore your balance. Initially, the exercises will help you gently shift your weight on to the surgery leg. These activities will progress to standing on the surgery leg, while on firm and unsteady surfaces to challenge your balance.

Return to sport or activities. As athletes regain strength and balance, they may begin running, jumping, hopping, and other exercises specific to their individual sport. This phase varies greatly from person-to-person. Physical therapists design return-to-sport treatment programs to fit individual needs and goals.

Back to Top

Can this Injury or Condition be Prevented?

Much of the research on ACL tears has been conducted with female collegiate athletes, because women are 4 to 6 times more likely to experience the injury. Preventive physical therapy programs have proven to lower ACL injury rates by 41% for female soccer players. Researchers have made the following recommendations for a preventive exercise program:

  • The program should be designed to improve balance, strength, and sports performance. Strengthening your core (abdominal) muscles is key to preventing injury, in addition to strengthening your thigh and leg muscles.

  • Exercises should be performed 2 or 3 times per week and should include sport-specific exercises.

  • The program should last no fewer than 6 weeks.

Although most exercise studies have been conducted with female athletes, the findings may benefit male athletes as well.

Back to Top

Real Life Experiences

Anita is a 20-year-old student at a local university, and a star basketball player. Her team is off to a great start this year; the buzz around campus is that this could be a dream team!

But tonight, when Anita goes up for a rebound and lands off-balance, she hears a "pop" in her left knee and feels a sharp pain. When she tries to walk, she realizes that she can't put weight on her left leg. She's led back to the training room, where the school physical therapist conducts an evaluation. The test results indicate injury, and the physical therapist notices an increase in swelling around the knee just 30 minutes after the incident. She suspects an ACL tear, and refers Anita to an orthopedic surgeon. The next day, the surgeon confirms the diagnosis of an ACL tear, and tells Anita that her injury requires surgery.

After a short course of treatment by her new local physical therapist, including pain and swelling management, manual (hands-on) therapy, and knee range-of-motion and strengthening exercises, Anita has surgery the following month. Her surgeon schedules her to receive physical therapy 3 days after her surgery. She is advised to ice and elevate the knee several times per day.

Three days after surgery, Anita returns to her local physical therapist to begin her rehabilitation. He shows her how to use her crutches properly to gently begin to put weight on the operative knee. He guides her to contract/tighten the quadriceps muscle, and gently performs manual (hands-on) stretches for her to straighten the knee.

Over the next few weeks, Anita is able to gradually stop using her crutches, and begins to put her full weight on her left leg. She can also fully straighten her knee and tighten her quadriceps muscle without help from her physical therapist. She learns exercises she can safely perform at home.

After 5 weeks, Anita is able to walk normally, fully extending her knee with no pain or feelings of instability. During the next 2 months, she and her physical therapist work on her strength and balance. She finds the hardest exercises are the balance exercises, which require her to balance on a piece of foam or a rocker board while throwing a ball.

About 4 months after surgery, Anita's physical therapist designs a gentle jogging program for her. At 5 months, he allows her to begin a running program. He also adds exercises during Anita's physical therapy sessions that mimic basketball activities such as rebounding or taking a jump shot. During these activities, Anita’s physical therapist teaches her proper landing techniques to lessen the chance of reinjuring her knee when she returns to play.

After 8 months, Anita is allowed to practice with her team. They are thrilled and excited to see their star player is back. Last year was a good year for the team, but it ended in the first round of the playoffs.

Anita and her team begin a new year of full competition 11 months after her surgery. With Anita back in top form, they make the playoffs, blast through to the finals – and bring home the trophy!

This story was based on a real-life case. Your case may be different. Your physical therapist will tailor a treatment program to your specific case.

Back to Top

What Kind of Physical Therapist Do I Need?

Although all physical therapists are prepared through education and experience to treat a variety of conditions or injuries, you may want to consider:

  • A physical therapist who is experienced in treating people with orthopedic (musculoskeletal) problems.

  • A physical therapist who is a board-certified clinical specialist or who has completed a residency or fellowship in orthopedic physical therapy and has advanced knowledge, experience, and skills that may apply to your condition.

You can find physical therapists with these and other credentials by using Find a PT, the online tool built by the American Physical Therapy Association to help you search for physical therapists with specific clinical expertise in your geographic area.

General tips when you're looking for a physical therapist:

  • Get recommendations from family and friends or from other health care providers.

  • When you contact a physical therapy clinic for an appointment, ask about the physical therapist's experience in helping people with ACL tears.

During your first visit with the physical therapist, be prepared to describe your symptoms in as much detail as possible, and say what makes your symptoms worse.

Back to Top

Further Reading

The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) believes that consumers should have access to information that could help them make health care decisions and also prepare them for their visit with their health care provider.

The following articles provide some of the best scientific evidence related to physical therapy treatment of ACL tears. The articles report recent research and give an overview of the standards of practice for treatment both in the United States and internationally. The article titles are listed by year and are linked either to a PubMed* abstract of the article or to free access of the full article, so that you can read it or print out a copy to bring with you to your health care provider.

Nyland J, Mattocks A, Kibbe S, Kalloub A, Greene JW, Caborn DN. Anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction, rehabilitation, and return to play: 2015 update. Open Access J Sports Med. 2016;7:21–32. Free Article.

Anderson MJ, Browning WM III, Urband CE, Kluczynski MA, Bisson LJ. A systematic summary of the systematic reviews on the topic of the anterior cruciate ligament. Orthop J Sports Med. 2016;4:2325967116634074. Free Article.

Anterior cruciate ligament injury. Medscape website. Accessed June 16, 2016.

Logerstedt DS, Snyder-Mackler L, Ritter RC, Axe MJ, Godges JJ; Orthopaedic Section of the American Physical Therapy Association. Knee stability and movement coordination impairments: knee ligament sprain. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2010;40:A1–A37. Free Article.

Eitzen I, Moksnes H, Snyder-Mackler L, Risberg MA. A progressive 5-week exercise therapy program leads to significant improvement in knee function early after anterior cruciate ligament injury. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2010;40:705-721. Free Article.

Nyland J, Brand E, Fisher B. Update on rehabilitation following ACL reconstruction. Open Access J Sports Med. 2010;1:151–166. Free Article.

Risberg MA, Holm I. The long-term effect of 2 postoperative rehabilitation programs after anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction: a randomized controlled clinical trial with 2 years of follow-up. Am J Sports Med. 2009;37:1958–1966. Free Article.

Gilchrist J, Mandelbaum BR, Melancon H, et al. A randomized controlled trial to prevent noncontact anterior cruciate ligament injury in female collegiate soccer players. Am J Sports Med. 2008;36:1476–1483. Article Summary on PubMed.

Hurd WJ, Axe MJ, Snyder-Mackler L. A 10-year prospective trial of a patient management algorithm and screening examination for highly active individuals with anterior cruciate ligament injury: Part 1, outcomes. Am J Sports Med. 2008;36:40-47. Free Article.

Benjaminse A, Gokeler A, van der Schans CP. Clinical diagnosis of an anterior cruciate ligament rupture: a meta-analysis. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2006;36:267–288. Article Summary on PubMed.

Hewett TE, Ford KR, Myer GD. Anterior cruciate ligament injuries in female athletes: part 2, a meta-analysis of neuromuscular interventions aimed at injury prevention. Am J Sports Med. 2006;34:490–498. Article Summary on PubMed.

Beynnon BD, Johnson RJ, Abate JA, Fleming BC, Nichol CE. Treatment of anterior cruciate ligament injuries, part 2. Am J Sports Med. 2005;33:1751–1767. Article Summary on PubMed.

Fitzgerald GK, Piva SR, Irrgang JJ. A modified neuromuscular electrical stimulation protocol for quadriceps strength training following anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2003;33:492–501. Article Summary on PubMed.

*PubMed is a free online resource developed by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). PubMed contains millions of citations to biomedical literature, including citations in the National Library of Medicine’s MEDLINE database.

Authored by Christopher Bise, PT, DPT, MS. Revised by Julie Mulcahy, PT. Reviewed by the editorial board.

Osteoporosis

What is Osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis is a bone disease characterized by low bone density (thickness of the bone), decreased bone strength, and a change in the bone structure, which can lead to an increased risk of fracture. The normal bone structure becomes thinned out and porous with poor nutrition, aging, or when osteoporosis develops, lessening the ability of the bone to withstand the typical forces that are applied in everyday living. Fractures from low bone density and osteoporosis can be serious, causing pain and affecting quality of life.

Bone is living tissue. Normally, one type of cell removes bone and another type of cell adds bone in a balanced, ongoing process. In osteoporosis, bones weaken when not enough new bone is formed and/or too much bone is lost. This imbalance commonly begins in women during the first 5 years of menopause. However, it can also occur in men and in children, often due to diseases that affect bone development, such as celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, spina bifida, cystic fibrosis, or kidney disease. Some medicines, such as steroids, may increase the risk of developing osteoporosis. Athletes who are underweight during the time of peak bone development are also susceptible.

There are many factors that can cause a person to be at risk for developing osteoporosis. It is important to know your risks so that you can be diagnosed and proactive in your treatment.


Unknown.jpeg

Risk Factors for Osteoporosis

Noncontrollable risks

  • Female gender

  • Small frame

  • Advanced age

  • Hormone levels

  • Genetics

  • Predisposing medical conditions

Controllable risks

  • Cigarette smoking

  • Excessive alcohol intake

  • Inactive lifestyle

  • Excessive caffeine intake

  • Lack of weight-bearing exercise

  • Drugs (eg, steroids, heparin)

  • Poor health

  • Low weight

  • Calcium-poor diet

  • Low vitamin D levels

 


How Does it Feel?

Osteoporosis is a disease that can be "silent." There may be no outward symptoms until a fracture occurs. If you are middle-aged or older, you may notice a loss of height or the appearance of a humpback. You may also begin to experience pain between your shoulder blades or above the crest of the pelvis.

People with low bone density may experience fractures in everyday situations that would not occur in persons with healthy bones, such as breaking a hip or a wrist with a fall from a standing height, breaking a rib when opening a window or when receiving a hug, or breaking an ankle after stepping off a curb. These are called fragility fractures and are a red flag for bone disease. Spinal compression fractures, particularly those in the upper back or thoracic spine (area between the neck and the lower back), are the most common fractures, followed by hip and wrist fractures.


How Is It Diagnosed?

If you are seeing a physical therapist for back pain or other rehabilitation issues, the therapist will review your medical, family, medication, exercise, dietary, and hormonal history, conduct a complete physical examination, and determine your risk factors for osteoporosis. The assessment may lead the physical therapist to recommend further testing.

Osteoporosis is best diagnosed through a quick and painless specialized X-ray called the DXA, which measures bone density. The results are reported using T-scores and Z-scores.

  • The T-score compares your score to that of healthy 30-year-old adults. If you have a T-score of -1 or less, you have a greater risk of having a fracture.

  • If the T-score is -2.5 or less you will receive the diagnosis of osteoporosis.

  • The Z-score compares your bone mineral density to those of the same sex, weight, and age. It is used for those whose bone mass has not yet peaked, premenopausal women, and men older than 50.

Other methods of measuring bone density include X-ray, ultrasound, and CT scan. 


How Can a Physical Therapist Help?

Your physical therapist can develop a specific program based on your individual needs to help improve your overall bone health, keep your bones healthy, and help you avoid fracture. Your physical therapist may teach you:

  • Specific exercises to build bone or decrease the amount of bone loss

  • Proper posture to protect your spine from fracture

  • Proper alignment during activities of daily living

  • How to improve your balance so as to reduce your risk of falling

  • How to adjust your environment to protect your bone health

Healthy bone is built and maintained through a healthy lifestyle. Your physical therapist will teach you specific exercises to meet your particular needs.

The exercise component for bone building or slowing bone loss is very specific and similar for all ages. Bone grows when it is sufficiently and properly stressed, just as muscle grows when challenged by more than usual weight. Two types of exercise are optimal for bone health: weight-bearing and resistance.

It is best for a physical therapist to provide your individual bone-building prescription to ensure that you are neither overexercising nor underexercising. Typically, exercises are performed 2 to 3 times a week as part of an overall fitness program.

Weight-bearing exercises

  • Dancing

  • Jogging (if your bone density is higher than -3.0)

  • Racquet sports

  • Heel drops

  • Stomping

Resistance exercises

  • Weight lifting in proper spine and lower-extremity alignment

  • Use of exercise bands

  • Gravity resistance (eg, push-ups, prone trunk extension with cushion to protect lowest ribs, single-leg heel raises, squats, lunges, sustained standing yoga poses in neutral spine position)

  • Exercises that reduce or stabilize kyphosis (hunchback)

  • Balance exercises

If you are diagnosed with osteoporosis or low bone density, your physical therapist will work with you to:

  • Build bone or lessen the amount of bone loss at areas most vulnerable to fracture through exercise—hip, spine, shoulder, arms.

  • Improve your dynamic balance to avoid falls.

  • Improve your posture.

  • Adjust your work and living environments to limit risk.

  • Help you avoid exercises and movements that may contribute to spinal fracture, including any type of sit-up or crunch, and excessive spinal or hip twisting.

Conservative treatment of a fracture includes bed rest and appropriate pain treatment. Your physical therapist will work with you to:

  • Decrease your pain through positioning and other pain-relieving modalities. Individualized physical therapist regimens can help reduce pain without the need for medications, such as opioids.

  • Provide appropriate external devices, such as bracing, to promote healing and improve posture.

  • Decrease your risk of a fall, strengthen your muscles, and improve your postural alignment.

  • Avoid exercises that involve too much forward or side bending or twisting.

  • Avoid water or endurance exercises, as they have been shown to negatively affect bone density.

If your pain lasts longer than 6 weeks following a spinal fracture, you can discuss surgical options, such as vertebroplasty or kyphoplasty, with your physical therapist, primary care physician, and surgeon.

Children and adolescents. Physical therapists can educate families and youth groups on proper exercise and posture, and about the need to move daily to build bone strength and prevent bone loss. Children with health issues such as spina bifida, diabetes, Crohn's disease, and cerebral palsy are at a greater risk for bone disease and can particularly benefit from the guidance of a physical therapist. Proper physical conditioning is crucial for children and adolescents: the majority of bone is built during adolescence and peaks by the third decade of life.

Middle-aged and older adults. As people age, they may begin to notice postural, balance, and strength changes. Physical therapists work with middle-aged and older adults to:

  • Develop individualized exercise programs to promote bone growth or lessen bone loss

  • Improve dynamic balance to avoid falls

  • Improve posture

  • Improve the strength of back muscles

  • Improve hip strength and mobility


Can this Injury or Condition be Prevented?

Osteoporosis can be prevented by building adequate bone density through childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. Building strong bones requires an adequate intake of calcium and vitamin D, and regular exercise.

There are steps to take to improve bone health at any age. An active lifestyle that includes resistance and weight-bearing exercise is important to maintain healthy bone. It is also important to avoid habits that promote bone loss, such as smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and an inadequate intake of calcium in your diet. Maintaining good body mechanics and posture also contribute to good bone health. We have no control over the genetic tendencies we have inherited, but we can choose to manage osteoporosis through proper medication, diet, and appropriate exercise.

As with any health issue, an overall healthy lifestyle is important for staying well.


Real Life Experiences

Anna is a 69-year-old retired legal secretary. She has enjoyed her early years of retirement, taking long walks in beautiful settings across the United States. Two years into her retirement, however, she began having knee pain during some of her walks, which gradually grew worse. Last year, she had a total knee replacement due to arthritis. She now walks with a cane because of chronic knee and ankle pain, and has experienced a loss of balance. She also has developed a rounded upper back, and low back pain. She seeks the help of a physical therapist.

Anna's physical therapist performs an assessment that includes a medical review for osteoporosis risk factors and for other health issues. He evaluates her range of motion and strength, testing her arms, legs, and trunk—especially her upper back. He tests the flexibility of her spine and her balance, her walking ability, and her risk of falling. Anna's walking style is uneven and she leans heavily on her cane. A DXA scan reveals that Anna has lost bone density in her spine and both hips. A vertebral fracture assessment X-ray shows that she has painless compression fractures of her spine. Her physical therapist diagnoses osteoporosis of the spine.

Anna first works with her physical therapist to improve her posture and knee function through flexibility and strengthening exercises, so she can walk more normally while working on her balance to lower her fall risk. She tells him her main goal is to be able to take walks in the park again.

Anna’s physical therapist teaches her safe trunk movement to avoid spinal fracture. Anna agrees to wear a dynamic trunk brace 2 hours a day to help make her posture more upright. She practices weight-bearing exercises with considerations for her arthritis, and learns resistive strengthening exercises for her spine and hip. Anna's physical therapist designs a gentle home-exercise program for her as well.

By her last visit, the flexibility and strength of Anna’s trunk and legs and her tolerance of physical activity have improved. The quality of her walking and dynamic balance are measurably improved, and her risk of falling has decreased. Anna feels much more confident about managing her condition.

Just this past week, Anna joined a therapeutic senior walking group that meets at the local botanic garden twice a week. She is thrilled to be enjoying gentle walks in nature again, and looks forward to coordinating other activities with her new group of friends!

This story was based on a real-life case. Your case may be different. Your physical therapist will tailor a treatment program to your specific case.


What Kind of Physical Therapist Do I Need?

All physical therapists are prepared through education and experience to treat those with osteoporosis. However, if you have a diagnosis of osteoporosis or low bone density, you may want to consider:

  • A physical therapist who is a board-certified clinical specialist or who completed a residency or fellowship in orthopedic physical therapy or geriatric physical therapy. This physical therapist has advanced knowledge, experience, and skills that may apply to your condition.

  • A physical therapist who specializes in the treatment of osteoporosis.

You can find physical therapists with these and other credentials by using Find a PT, the online tool by the American Physical Therapy Association that can help you search for physical therapists with specific clinical expertise in your geographic area.

General tips when you're looking for a physical therapist (or any other health care provider):

  • Get recommendations from family and friends or from other health care providers.

  • When you contact a physical therapy clinic for an appointment, ask about the physical therapists' experience in helping people who have osteoporosis.


Further Reading

The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) believes that consumers should have access to information that can help them make health care decisions and also prepare them for a visit with their health care provider.

The following websites are important and reputable resources to obtain more information about improving your bone health:

National Osteoporosis Foundation. Accessed March 28, 2018.   

American Bone Health. Accessed March 28, 2018.

American Bone Health. FORE fracture risk calculator. Accessed March 28, 2018.

Osteoporosis Canada. Accessed March 28, 2018.

Osteoporosis Canada. Too fit to fracture series. Accessed March 28, 2018.

National Bone Health Alliance. Accessed March 28, 2018.

Own the Bone. Accessed March 28, 2018.

National Osteoporosis Foundation and Pilates Anytime. Safe movement video series. Accessed March 28, 2018.

MedBridge. Osteoporosis education courses for physical therapists. Accessed March 28, 2018.

Office of the US Surgeon General. The 2004 Surgeon General’s report on bone health and osteoporosis. Accessed March 28, 2018. 

Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee, US Dept of Health and Human Services. Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee Report, 2008Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services. Published June 2008. Accessed March 28, 2018. 

The following articles provide some of the best scientific evidence related to physical therapy treatment of osteoporosis and fracture prevention. The articles report recent research and give an overview of the standards of practice both in the United States and internationally. The article titles are linked either to a Pub Med* abstract of the article or to free full text, so that you can read it or print out a copy to bring with you to your health care provider.

Watson SL, Weks BK, Weis LJ, Harding AT, Horan SA, Beck BR. High-intensity resistance and impact training improves bone mineral density and physical function in postmenopausal women with osteopenia and osteoporosis: the LIFTMOR randomized controlled trial. J Bone Miner Res. 2018;33(2):211–220. Article Summary in PubMed.

Beck BR, Daly RM, Singh MA, Taaffe DR. Exercise and Sports Science Australia (ESSA) position statement on exercise prescription for the prevention and management of osteoporosis. J Sci Med Sport. 2017;20(5):438–445. Article Summary in PubMed.

Sözen T, Özışık L, Başaran NÇ. An overview and management of osteoporosis. Eur J Rheumatol. 2017;4(1):46–56. Free Article.

Giangregorio LM, McGill S, Wark JD, et al. Too fit to fracture: outcomes of a Delphi consensus process on physical activity and exercise recommendations for adults with osteoporosis with or without vertebral fractures. Osteoporos Int. 2015;26(3):891–910. Free Article.

Bansal S, Katzman WB, Giangregorio LM. Exercise for improving age-related hyperkyphotic posture: a systematic review. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2014;95(1):129–140. Free Article.

Clark EM, Carter L, Gould VC, Morrison L, Tobias JH. Vertebral fracture assessment (VFA) by lateral DXA scanning may be cost-effective when used as part of fracture liaison services or primary care screening. Osteoporos Int. 2014;25(3):953–964. Article Summary in PubMed.

Siris ES, Adler R, Bilezikian J, et al. The clinical diagnosis of osteoporosis: a position statement from the National Bone Health Alliance Working Group. Osteoporos Int. 2014;25(5):1439–1443. Free Article.

Silva BC, Boutroy S, Zhang C, et al. Trabecular bone score (TBS): a novel method to evaluate bone microarchitectural texture in patients with primary hyperparathyroidism. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2013;98(5):1963–1970. Free Article.

Cheung AM, Giangregorio L. Mechanical stimuli and bone health: what is the evidence? Curr Opin Rheumatol. 2012;24:561–566. Article Summary in PubMed.

Pfeifer M, Kohlwey L, Begerow B, Minne HW. Effects of two newly developed spinal orthoses on trunk muscle strength, posture, and quality-of-life in women with postmenopausal osteoporosis: a randomized trial. Am J Phys Med Rehabil. 2011;90:805–815. Article Summary on PubMed.

Kasukawa Y, Miyakoshi N, Hongo M, et al. Relationships between falls, spinal curvature, spinal mobility and back extensor strength in elderly people. J Bone Miner Metab. 2010;28:82–87. Article Summary in PubMed.

Nikander R, Kannus P, Dastidar M, et al. Targeted exercises against hip fragility. Osteoporos Int. 2009;20:1321–1328. Article Summary in PubMed.

Hongo M, Itoi E, Sinaki M, et al. Effect of low-intensity back exercise on quality of life and back extensor strength in patients with osteoporosis: a randomized controlled trial. Osteoporos Int. 2007;18:1389–1395. Article Summary in PubMed.

Vainionpaa A, Korpelainen R, Leppaluoto J, Jamsa T. Effects of high-impact exercise on bone mineral density: a randomized controlled trial in premenopausal women. Osteoporos Int. 2005;16:191–197. Article Summary in PubMed.

*PubMed is a free online resource developed by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). PubMed contains millions of citations to biomedical literature, including citations in the National Library of Medicine's MEDLINE database.

Authored by Mary Saloka Morrison, PT, DScPT, MHS. Reviewed by the editorial board.




Osteoarthritis of the Knee

Osteoarthritis of the knee (knee OA) is the inflammation and wearing away of the cartilage on the bones that form the knee joint (osteo=bone, arthro=joint, itis=inflammation). The diagnosis of knee OA is based on 2 primary findings: radiographic evidence of changes in bone health (through medical images such as X-ray and magnetic resonance imaging [MRI]), and an individual’s symptoms (how you feel). Approximately 14 million people in the United States have symptomatic knee OA. Although more common in older adults, 2 million of the 14 million people with symptomatic knee OA were younger than 45 when diagnosed, and more than half were younger than 65.

download.jpg

What is Osteoarthritis of Knee?

Knee osteoarthritis (knee OA) is a progressive disease caused by inflammation and degeneration of the knee joint that worsens over time. It affects the entire joint, including bone, cartilage, ligaments, and muscles. Its progression is influenced by age, body mass index (BMI), bone structure, genetics, muscular strength, and activity level. Knee OA also may develop as a secondary condition following a traumatic knee injury. Depending on the stage of the disease and whether there are associated injuries or conditions, knee OA can be managed with physical therapy. More severe or advanced cases may require surgery.


How Does it Feel?

Individuals who develop knee OA may experience a wide range of symptoms and limitations based on the progression of the disease. Pain occurs when the cartilage covering the bones of the knee joint wears down. Areas where the cartilage is worn down or damaged exposes the underlying bone. The exposure of the bone allows increased stress and compression to the cartilage, and at times bone-on-bone contact during movement, which can cause pain. Because the knee is a weight-bearing joint, your activity level, and the type and duration of your activities usually have a direct impact on your symptoms. Symptoms may be worse with weight-bearing activity, such as walking while carrying a heavy object.

Symptoms of knee OA may include:

  • Worsening pain during or following activity, particularly with walking, climbing, or descending stairs, or moving from a sitting to standing position

  • Pain or stiffness after sitting with the knee bent or straight for a prolonged period of time

  • A feeling of popping, cracking, or grinding when moving the knee

  • Swelling following activity

  • Tenderness to touch along the knee joint

Typically these symptoms do not occur suddenly or all at once, but instead develop gradually over time. Sometimes individuals do not recognize they have osteoarthritis because they cannot remember a specific time or injury that caused their symptoms. If you have had worsening knee pain for several months that is not responding to rest or a change in activity, it is best to seek the advice of a medical provider.


How Is It Diagnosed?

Knee OA is diagnosed by 2 primary processes. The first is based on your report of your symptoms and a clinical examination. Your physical therapist will ask you questions about your medical history and activity. The therapist will perform a physical exam to measure your knee's movement (range of motion), strength, mobility, and flexibility. You might also be asked to perform various movements to see if they increase or decrease the pain you are experiencing.

The second tool used to diagnose knee OA is diagnostic imaging. Your physical therapist may refer you to a physician, who will order X-rays of the knee in a variety of positions to check for damage to the bone and cartilage of your knee joint. If more severe joint damage is suspected, an MRI may be ordered to look more closely at the overall status of the joint and surrounding tissues. Blood tests also may be ordered to help rule out other conditions that can cause symptoms similar to knee OA.


How Can a Physical Therapist Help?

Once you have received a diagnosis of knee OA, your physical therapist will design an individualized treatment program specific to the exact nature of your condition and your goals. Your treatment program may include:

Range-of-motion exercises. Abnormal motion of the knee joint can lead to a worsening of OA symptoms when there is additional stress on the joint. Your physical therapist will assess your knee’s range of motion compared with expected normal motion and the motion of the knee on your uninvolved leg. Your range-of-motion exercises will focus on improving your ability to bend and straighten your knee, as well as improve your flexibility to allow for increased motion.

Muscle strengthening. Strengthening the muscles around your knee will be an essential part of your rehabilitation program. Individuals with knee OA who adhere to strengthening programs have been shown to have less pain and an improved overall quality of life. There are several factors that influence the health of a joint: the quality of the cartilage that lines the bones, the tissue within and around the joints, and the associated muscles. Due to the wear and tear on cartilage associated with knee OA, maintaining strength in the muscles near the joint is crucial to preserve joint health. For example, as the muscles along the front and back of your thigh (quadriceps and hamstrings) cross the knee joint, they help control the motion and forces that are applied to the bones.

Strengthening the hip and core muscles also can help balance the amount of force on the knee joint, particularly during walking or running. The “core” refers to the muscles of the abdomen, low back, and pelvis. A strong core will increase stability throughout your body as you move your arms and legs. Your physical therapist will assess these different muscle groups, compare the strength in each limb, and prescribe specific exercises to target your areas of weakness.

Manual therapy. Physical therapists are trained in manual (hands-on) therapy. Your physical therapist will gently move your muscles and joints to improve their motion, flexibility, and strength. These techniques can target areas that are difficult to treat on your own. The addition of manual therapy techniques to exercise plans has been shown to decrease pain and increase function in people with knee OA.

Bracing. Compressive sleeves placed around the knee may help reduce pain and swelling. Devices such as realignment and off-loading braces are used to modify the forces placed on the knee. These braces can help "unload" certain areas of your knee and move contact to less painful areas of the joint during weight-bearing activities. Depending on your symptoms and impairments, your physical therapist will help determine which brace may be best for you.

Activity recommendations. Physical therapists are trained to understand how to prescribe exercises to individuals with injuries or pain. Since knee OA is a progressive disease, it is important to develop a specific plan to perform enough activity to address the problem, while avoiding excessive stress on the knee joint. Activity must be prescribed and monitored based on the type, frequency, duration, and intensity of your condition, with adequate time allotted for rest and recovery. Research has shown that individuals with knee OA who walked more steps per day were less likely to develop functional problems in the future. Your physical therapist will consider the stage and extent of your knee OA and prescribe an individualized exercise program to address your needs and maximize the function of your knee.

Modalities. Your physical therapist may recommend therapeutic modalities, such as ice and heat, to aid in pain management.

If Surgery Is Required

The meniscus (the shock absorber of the knee) may be involved in some cases of knee OA. In the past, surgery (arthroscopy) to repair or remove parts or all of this cartilage was common. Current research, however, has shown that—in a group of patients who were deemed surgical candidates for knee OA with involvement of the meniscus—60% to 70% of those who first participated in a physical therapy program did not go on to have surgery. One year later, those results were unchanged. This study suggests that physical therapy may be an effective alternative for people with knee OA, who would prefer to avoid surgery.

Sometimes, however, surgical intervention, such as arthroscopy or a total knee replacement, may be recommended. There are many factors to consider when determining the appropriate surgical treatment, including the nature of your condition, your age, activity level, and overall health. Your physical therapist will refer you to an orthopedic surgeon to discuss your surgical options.

Should you choose to have surgery, your physical therapist can assist you prior to and following your surgery. The treatment you require following surgery will depend on a variety of factors such as the type of surgery performed, your level of function, and fitness prior to surgery. Contrary to popular belief, surgery is not the easy choice; you will still require treatment following your surgery to maximize your level of function.


Can this Injury or Condition be Prevented?

Many conditions, including knee OA, can be prevented with the right fitness and exercise program. Physical therapists are experts in movement. Some ways that a physical therapist can help you prevent knee OA include:

  • Developing an appropriate exercise program. Inactivity is a significant contributor to many problems that affect individuals, including knee OA. Strengthening the muscles around the knee, as well as surrounding joints, can help decrease stress to the knee joint. Exercises to improve flexibility can help you maintain motion in the knee joint, which helps keep the cartilage healthy. Your physical therapist can design an individualized treatment program to boost your strength and flexibility, based on your specific condition.

  • Weight loss. Excessive weight can increase stress to the knee joint, which in turn can contribute to the wearing away of the protective cartilage, leading to knee OA. Your physical therapist can assess your weight, perform testing to determine your fitness level, establish an exercise program, and recommend lifestyle changes. The therapist also may refer you to another health care provider, such as a dietician, for further guidance.

  • Activity modification. Individuals often move or perform activities in a way that is unhealthy or inefficient, or that places excessive stress on the body, including the knee joint. Your physical therapist can teach you better ways to move in order to ease stress on your body and your knees.

  • Taking a “whole body” approach to movement. Lack of strength, mobility, and flexibility in surrounding areas of the body such as the ankle, hip, and spine also can affect the knee. Taking these body regions into consideration is important to help prevent knee OA. Your physical therapist will work with you to help ensure your whole body is moving correctly, as you perform your daily activities.


Real Life Experiences

Luke is a 50-year-old businessman who has just moved his family to the city so he can start a new job. For the last 2 months, Luke has been working hard to fix up his family’s new home, carrying heavy boxes and moving furniture up and down stairs. He also has worked late into the night installing appliances.

After starting his new job last week, sitting through numerous orientation sessions and meetings, Luke notices that his right knee is really hurting. He is used to occasional knee discomfort, but this is the worst it has felt in a long time. During his junior year at college, Luke suffered a significant knee injury while playing basketball, which required surgery.

These days, Luke coaches his son’s Little League team, exercises several times each week, and plays pickup basketball with his friends. But occasionally, particularly after long road trips, his knee pain flares up, and he has to resort to medication, icing, and rest. These bouts are starting to occur more regularly. Luke decides it's time to seek a consultation with a physical therapist.

During Luke’s first appointment, his physical therapist asks him questions regarding his medical history, prior injuries, current symptoms and complaints, and goals for physical therapy. She examines his knee motion, strength, balance, and walking mechanics. She also uses special tests and measures to determine the nature of Luke’s pain, ruling out any other possible conditions.

Based on her findings, Luke's physical therapist determines that his current knee pain is a result of posttraumatic osteoarthritis. She diagnoses knee OA. She explains that his history of significant knee injury in college put him at risk of developing knee OA at a young age. The recent increased demand on his knee joint during his move is likely responsible for the current flare-up of pain and swelling.

Over the next 6 weeks, Luke works with his physical therapist to decrease his joint pain and improve his knee motion and full-body flexibility. She uses manual therapy techniques to improve the mobility of his knee joint. She prescribes a progressive exercise program to strengthen the muscles of his hip, knee, and core. She tailors this program so that Luke can complete it daily, based on the equipment available at his office gym facility.

Six weeks later, Luke is able to climb and descend stairs, squat, and jog without pain. He can sit through a full day of meetings without noticing stiffness or swelling in his knee. On his last day of therapy, Luke’s physical therapist provides him with a detailed home-exercise program and suggestions for maintaining the improvements he has made. With the summer approaching, he's preparing to coach his son's baseball tournaments—and take his family to the beach!

This story was based on a real-life case. Your case may be different. Your physical therapist will tailor a treatment program to your specific case.


What Kind of Physical Therapist Do I Need?

All physical therapists are prepared through education and clinical experience to treat a variety of conditions or injuries. You may want to consider:

  • A physical therapist who is experienced in treating people with knee osteoarthritis and after knee replacement surgery. Some physical therapists have a practice with an orthopedic focus.

  • A physical therapist who is a board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist. This physical therapist will have advanced knowledge, experience, and skills that may apply to your condition.

You can find physical therapists who have these and other credentials by using Find a PT, the online tool built by the American Physical Therapy Association to help you search for physical therapists with specific clinical expertise in your geographic area.

General tips when you're looking for a physical therapist (or any other health care provider):

  • Get recommendations from family and friends or from other health care providers.

  • When you contact a physical therapy clinic for an appointment, ask about the physical therapists' experience in helping people with arthritis.

  • During your first visit with the physical therapist, be prepared to describe your symptoms in as much detail as possible, and report activities that make your symptoms worse.


Further Reading

The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) believes that consumers should have access to information that could help them make health care decisions and also prepare them for their visit with their health care provider.

The following articles provide some of the best scientific evidence related to physical therapy treatment of arthritis. The articles report recent research and give an overview of the standards of practice both in the United States and internationally. The article titles are linked either to a PubMed* abstract of the article or to free full-text, so that you can read it or print out a copy to bring with you to your health care provider.

Brosseau L, Taki J, Desjardins B, et al. The Ottawa panel clinical practice guidelines for the management of knee osteoarthritis; part two: strengthening exercise programs. Clin Rehabil. 2017;31:596–611. Article Summary in PubMed.

Deshpande BR, Katz JN, Solomon DH, et al. Number of persons with symptomatic knee osteoarthritis in the US: impact of race and ethnicity, age, sex, and obesity. Arthritis Care Res (Hoboken). 2016;68:1743–1750. Article Summary in PubMed.

Ackerman IN, Bucknill A, Page RS, et al. The substantial personal burden experienced by younger people with hip or knee osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis Cartilage. 2015;23:1276–1284. Article Summary in PubMed.

Katz JN, Brophy RH, Chaisson CE, et al. Surgery versus physical therapy for a meniscal tear and osteoarthritis [published correction appears in: N Engl J Med. 2013;369:683]. N Engl J Med. 2013;368:1675–1684. Free Article.

Segal NA. Bracing and orthoses: a review of efficacy and mechanical effects for tibiofemoral osteoarthritis. PM R. 2012;4(5 Suppl):S89–S96. Article Summary on PubMed.

Jansen MJ, Viechtbauer W, Lenssen AF, et al. Strength training alone, exercise therapy alone, and exercise therapy with passive manual mobilisation each reduce pain and disability in people with knee osteoarthritis: a systematic review. J Physiother. 2011;57:11–20. Free Article.

Bennell KL, Hinman RS. A review of the clinical evidence for exercise in osteoarthritis of the hip and knee. J Sci Med Sport. 2011;14:4–9. Article Summary on PubMed.

Lawrence RC, Felson DT, Helmick CG, et al. Estimates of the prevalence of arthritis and other rheumatic conditions in the United States, part II. Arthritis Rheum. 2008;58:26–35. Free Article.

* PubMed is a free online resource developed by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). PubMed contains millions of citations to biomedical literature, including citations in the National Library of Medicine’s MEDLINE database.

Authored by Laura Stanley, PT, DPT, Board-Certified Clinical Specialist in Sports Physical Therapy. Reviewed by the MoveForwardPT.com editorial board.



Hip Impingement (Femoroacetabular Impingement)

Hip impingement involves a change in the shape of the surface of the hip joint that predisposes it to damage, resulting in stiffness and pain. Hip impingement is a process that may precede hip osteoarthritis. It most often occurs in young, active people. A recent study found that 87% of teens and adults with hip pain showed evidence of hip impingement on diagnostic images taken of their hip joints. To treat hip impingement, physical therapists prescribe stretches and strengthening exercises to better balance the muscles around the hip to protect it, and use manual therapies to help restore range of motion and increase comfort.

What is Hip Impingement?

There are 2 types of hip impingement; they may occur alone or together.

Pincer-Type Impingement

  • In pincer-type impingement, the hip socket (acetabulum), which is usually angled forward, may be angled toward the back, or protruding bone may be present on the pelvis side of the hip joint making the socket a deeper recess that covers more of the ball or head of the femur bone.

  • The overgrown bone or incorrect angle of the socket causes the labrum, a rim of connective tissue around the edge of the hip socket, to be pinched. Over time, this extra pressure to the labrum when flexing (moving the leg forward) leads to wear and tear that can cause inflammation and could result in a tear. If this condition persists, eventually the cartilage that lines the hip joint can become worn and form holes.

  • This condition affects men and women equally; symptoms often begin early, appearing at any time between 15 to 50 years of age.

 

Cam-Type Impingement

  • In cam-type impingement, the shape of the bone around the head of the femur—the ball at the top of the bone in the thigh—is misshapen. It can vary from the normal round ball shape, or have overgrown bone formed at the top and front. The nickname “pistol grip” deformity is given to the appearance of the bony overgrowth on x-rays.

  • The overgrown or misshapen bone contacts the cartilage that lines the hip socket, and can cause it to peel away from the bone in the socket. The labrum can become worn, frayed, or torn as well.

  • This condition affects men to women at a ratio of 3 to 1; symptoms often manifest during the teen years and 20s.

HipImpingement-SM.jpg

Signs and Symptoms

Hip impingement may cause you to experience:

  • Stiffness or deep aching pain in the front or side of the hip or front of the upper thigh while resting.

  • Sharp, stabbing pain when standing up from a chair, squatting, rising from a squat, running, "cutting," jumping, twisting, pivoting, or making lateral motions.

  • Hip pain described in a specific location by making a "C" with the thumb and hand and placing it on the fold at the front and side of the hip, known as the "C-sign."

  • Pain that most often starts gradually, but can also remain after another injury resolves.

  • Pain that increases with prolonged sitting or forward leaning.

  • Feeling less flexible at the hips, including a decreased ability to turn your thigh inward on the painful side.

How Is It Diagnosed?

Your physical therapist will evaluate the range of motion (movement) of the hip and surrounding joints, and test the strength of the muscles in that area. Your therapist will feel the hip joint and surrounding muscles to evaluate their condition. The examination will include observing how you move, standing from a sitting position, walking, running, or squatting, as appropriate. Your physical therapist may perform special tests to help determine whether the hip is the source of your symptoms. For instance, the therapist may gently roll your leg in and out (the “log roll” test), or bend your hip up and in while turning the lower leg out to the side (the "FADDIR" test) to assess your condition.

If further diagnosis is needed, your doctor may order diagnostic tests to help identify any joint changes, including x-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or diagnostic injections. Hip impingement can occur at the same time as low back, buttock, or pelvic pain, or from conditions such as bursitis or groin strain. The final diagnosis of hip impingement may take some time, especially when other conditions are present.

How Can a Physical Therapist Help?

Without Surgery

When an active person develops hip pain, but does not have severe symptoms or joint damage, the recommended treatment is physical therapy. The following interventions can help decrease pain, improve movement, and avoid the progression of hip impingement and the need for surgery:

  • Improving the strength of your hips and trunk. Strengthening of the hips and trunk can reduce abnormal forces on the already injured joint and help with strategies to compensate.

  • Improving hip muscle flexibility and joint mobility. Stretching tight muscles can reduce abnormal forces that cause pain with motion. Joint mobilization may help ease pain from the hip joint; however, these treatments do not always help range of motion, especially if the shape of the bone at the hip joint has changed.

  • Improving tolerance of daily activities. Your physical therapist can consider your job and recreational activities and offer advice regarding maintaining postures that are healthier for your hip and activity modification. Often this involves limiting the amount of bending at the hip to avoid further hip damage.

 

Following Surgery

Surgery for hip impingement is performed with arthroscopy. This is a minimally invasive type of surgery, where the surgeon makes small incisions in the skin and inserts pencil-sized instruments into the joint to repair damage. The surgeon may perform 1 or several techniques during your procedure as needed. The surgeon may remove or reshape the bone on the pelvis or femur side of the joint, and repair or remove the damaged labrum or cartilage of the hip joint.

Postsurgical physical therapy varies based on the procedure performed. It may include:

  • Ensuring your safety as you heal. Your physical therapist may recommend that you limit the amount of weight you put on the operated leg if there was a repair of the labrum. You may wear a brace to help limit the amount of bending at the hip. You might also use crutches to avoid overloading the leg if the bone on the femur was reshaped.

  • Improving your range of motion, strength, and balance. Your physical therapist will guide you through safe range-of-motion, strengthening, and balance activities to improve your movement as quickly as possible while allowing the surgical site to heal properly.

  • Instructions on returning to an active lifestyle. Most people return to normal daily activities about 3 months after surgery, and to high-level activities and sports 4 to 6 months after surgery. Your physical therapist will recommend a gradual return to activity based on your condition—research shows that 60% to 90% of athletes return to their previous playing ability depending on the surgical procedure performed and the sport.

Can this Injury or Condition be Prevented?

Currently there are no recommendations to prevent hip impingement. Despite a major increase in research to learn more about hip impingement, there is a great deal that is unknown. For instance, many active young people whose x-rays show hips as being abnormal do not have pain despite continuing to live active lives and participate in sports.

However, there is evidence that physical therapy interventions along with anti-inflammatory drugs can decrease pain, slow joint damage, and improve function. This is particularly important in those with mild hip impingement, those who are attempting to avoid surgery, and those who are not candidates for surgery.

Real Life Experiences

Lindsay is an active high school senior who plays shortstop for her school's softball team. Over the last several months, she has had progressively worsening pain on the front and side of her left hip. It started as an occasional sharp pain when she fielded ground balls at practice, and it eventually developed into aching and stiffness of the hip while resting. Lindsay occasionally develops hip pain while sitting in class or at the movies. In the past couple of weeks, she has found it hard to lean forward to tie her shoes. Her mom has been worrying about her pain and takes Lindsay to her physical therapist.

At the evaluation, the physical therapist finds that Lindsay has weakness around her hip and trunk muscles, decreased hip mobility, pain when flexing the hip, pain returning to a standing position after squatting, and decreased balance when standing on her affected leg. Her physical therapist diagnoses mild hip impingement in her left hip. Lindsay sees her physical therapist 1-2 times a week for the next 6 weeks.

Her treatments focus on developing a home program for strengthening her hips and trunk, and the therapist uses manual therapy for the hip to improve her comfort and allow her to perform more activities. The therapist works with Lindsay to change how she moves when standing from a seated position, and also to modify how she moves when playing the infield in softball. Lindsay also spends less time in the positions that bother her hip in the weight room and on the practice field, following recommendations from her physical therapist. After 3 weeks, the majority of her pain has subsided, and by 6 weeks, she is playing in games pain-free.

Lindsay meets her goal of finishing her senior year with the softball team. However, she is considering other ways to stay active after she graduates that don’t involve bending forward as much.

This story was based on a real-life case. Your case may be different. Your physical therapist will tailor a treatment program to your specific case.

What Kind of Physical Therapist Do I Need?

All physical therapists are prepared through education and experience to treat patients who have hip impingement. You may want to consider:

  • A physical therapist who is experienced in treating people with musculoskeletal problems. Some physical therapists have a practice with a sports or orthopaedic focus.

  • A physical therapist who is a board-certified clinical specialist or who completed a residency or fellowship in sports or orthopaedic physical therapy. This therapist has advanced knowledge, experience, and skills that may apply to your condition.

You can find physical therapists who have these and other credentials by using Find a PT, the online tool built by the American Physical Therapy Association to help you search for physical therapists with specific clinical expertise in your geographic area.

General tips when you're looking for a physical therapist (or any other health care provider):

  • Get recommendations from family and friends or from other health care providers.

  • When you contact a physical therapy clinic for an appointment, ask about the physical therapists' experience in helping people with hip impingement.

  • During your first visit with the physical therapist, be prepared to describe your symptoms in as much detail as possible, and say what makes your symptoms worse.

Further Reading

The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) believes that consumers should have access to information that could help them make health care decisions and also prepare them for their visit with their health care provider.

The following articles provide some of the best scientific evidence related to physical therapy treatment of problems related to hip impingement. The articles report recent research and give an overview of the standards of practice for treatment both in the United States and internationally. The article titles are linked either to a PubMed* abstract of the article or to free full text, so that you can read it or print out a copy to bring with you to your health care provider.

Byrd JW. Femoroacetabular impingement in athletes, part I: cause and assessment. Sports Health. 2010;2:321-333. Free Article.

Byrd JW. Femoroacetabular impingement in athletes, part II: treatment and outcomes. Sports Health. 2010;2:403-409. Free Article.

Enseki KR, Martin RL, Draovitch P, et al. The hip joint: arthroscopic procedures and postoperative rehabilitation. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2006:36:516-525. Article Summary in PubMed.

*PubMed is a free online resource developed by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). PubMed contains millions of citations to biomedical literature, including citations in the National Library of Medicine’s MEDLINE database.

Authored by Jennifer Miller, PT, MPT, SCS. Reviewed by the MoveForwardPT.com editorial board.

Greater Trochanteric Bursitis

Greater trochanteric bursitis (GTB) is an irritation of the bursa, a fluid-filled sac that sits on top of the greater trochanter, a bony prominence on the outside of the hip bone (femur). The bursa acts as a cushion to decrease friction between the outside of the hip bone and muscles attaching to the bone; bursitis results when the bursa on the outside of the hip bone becomes irritated. Greater trochanteric pain syndrome is the term used when the condition also includes irritation to the tendons of the gluteal muscles that sit beneath the bursa. 

Most often, GTB is the result of repetitive friction to the bursa due to a combination of muscle weakness and tightness affecting the outside of the hip. The condition is most often treated with physical therapy to restore normal function.

GTB may result from a combination of several different variables, including:

  • Gluteal muscle weakness

  • Iliotibial (IT) band (a thick band of tissue that runs along the outside of the leg from the pelvis to the knee) tightness

  • Hip muscle tightness

  • Abnormal hip or knee structure

  • Abnormal hip or knee mechanics (movement)

  • Improper movement technique with repetitive activities

  • Change in an exercise routine or sport activity

  • Improper footwear


images-1.jpeg


How Does it Feel?

People with GTB may experience:

  • Tenderness to touch on the outside of the hip

  • Pain that can vary from sharp to dull, and can radiate to the buttock, groin, thigh, or knee

  • Pain that is intermittent and symptomatic for a prolonged period

  • Pain when lying on the involved side

  • Pain and stiffness with prolonged sitting, walking (worst with the first few steps), negotiating stairs, or squatting

  • Pain that may increase during prolonged activity


How Is It Diagnosed?

The goals of the initial examination are to assess the degree of the injury, and determine the cause and contributing factors to it. GTB is a condition that develops as a consequence of repetitive irritation in the hip; it seldom results from a single injury. Your physical therapist will begin by gathering information about your condition, including your health history and your current symptoms. Your therapist will then examine your hip and thigh region to determine the presence of GTB. Your physical therapist may ask you questions about:

  • Your health history

  • Your current symptoms and how they may affect your typical day

  • The location and intensity of your pain, and how it may vary during the day

  • How the pain affects your activity level, and what you do to reduce the pain

  • How any injury may have occurred prior to your symptoms developing

  • How you have sought treatment, such as seeing other health care practitioners or having imaging or other tests done

Your physical examination will focus on the region of your symptoms, but also include other areas that may have been affected as your body has adjusted to pain. Your physical therapist may watch you walk, step onto a stair, squat, or balance on one leg. Following the interview and physical examination, your physical therapist will assess the results and develop an individualized treatment program to address your specific condition and goals. 

Imaging techniques, such as X-ray or MRI, are typically not needed to diagnose GTB.


How Can a Physical Therapist Help?

You and your physical therapist will work together to develop a plan to help achieve your specific goals. To do so, your physical therapist will select treatment strategies in any or all of the following areas:

  • Patient education. Your physical therapist will work with you to identify and change any external factors causing your pain, such as the type and amount of exercises you perform, your athletic activities, or your footwear. Your therapist will recommend improvements in your daily activities, and develop a personalized exercise program to help ensure a pain-free return to your desired activity level.

  • Pain management. Your physical therapist will design a program to address your pain that includes applying ice to the affected area as well as a trial of heat, such as a hot shower or heating pad. The exercises discussed below also can have a pain-reducing component. Your physical therapist also may recommend decreasing some activities that cause pain. Physical therapists are experts in prescribing pain-management techniques that reduce or eliminate the need for medication.

  • Range-of-motion exercise. Your low back, hip, or knee joint may be moving improperly, causing increased tension at the greater trochanter. Your physical therapist may teach you self-stretching techniques to decrease tension and help restore normal motion in the back, hip, and knee.

  • Manual therapy. Your physical therapist may apply “hands-on” treatments to gently move your muscles and joints, most likely in your low back, hip, or thigh. These techniques help improve motion and strength, and often address areas that are difficult to treat on your own.

  • Muscle strength. Muscle weaknesses or imbalances can result in excessive strain at the greater trochanter. Based on your specific condition, your physical therapist will design a safe, individualized, progressive resistance program for you, likely including your core (midsection) and lower extremity. You may begin by performing strengthening exercises lying on a table or at home on the bed or floor (eg, lifting your leg up while lying in different positions). You then may advance to exercises in a standing position (eg, standing squats). Your physical therapist will choose what exercises are right for you based on your age and physical condition.

  • Functional training. Once your pain, strength, and motion improve you will need to safely transition back into more demanding activities. To minimize the tension on the hip and your risk of repeated injury, it is important to teach your body safe, controlled movements. Based on your own unique movement assessment and goals, your physical therapist will create a series of activities to help you learn how to use and move your body correctly and safely.

Physical therapy promotes recovery from GTB by addressing issues, such as pain in the body structure, that is under stress from any lack of strength, flexibility, or body control. Your physical therapist may also recommend a period of relative rest, then help you slowly resume activities and carefully guide your progression. When GTB remains untreated, however, your pain will persist and result in long-term difficulty performing your desired activities.


Can this Injury or Condition be Prevented?

GTB may be the result of changes in the body’s shape, such as one leg being longer or shorter on the involved side. This condition can occur from an injury to the lower extremity or subtle differences that occur in the body’s growth and development.

Maintaining appropriate lower-extremity mobility and muscle strength, and paying particular attention to your exercise routine—especially changes in an exercise activity, the volume of exercises performed, and your footwear—are the best methods for preventing GTB.

Your physical therapist will help guide you through a process that will progressively reintegrate more demanding activities into your routine without overstraining your hip. Keep in mind that returning to activities too soon after injury can cause the condition to be more difficult to fix, and often leads to persistent pain.


Real Life Experiences

Karen is a 47-year-old teacher who is training for her first 5K road race. She runs 3 to 4 days each week, then walks the other days. Over the past 2 weeks, she has begun to experience pain in the outside of her right hip. Her pain is worse while running and lying on her right side; she experiences hip pain and stiffness when taking her first steps in the morning and walking up stairs, and also notes a dull ache with prolonged sitting and standing. She typically performs stretches for 5 minutes before her runs. Karen had not run consistently before she began training for the 5K.

Karen is concerned about the sharp hip pain she feels when running and her inability to complete her training due to pain. She is worried about her ability to perform daily activities and train for her upcoming race. She decides to seek the help of a physical therapist.

Karen's physical therapist takes a full history of her condition. Karen describes her typical daily running routine, including distance, pace, and running surface; her stretching routine; and her footwear. Her physical therapist then assesses Karen’s motion, strength, balance, movement, and running mechanics. He skillfully palpates (gently presses on) the front, side, and back of her hip to determine the precise location of her pain. Based on these findings, he diagnoses greater trochanteric bursitis.

Karen and her physical therapist work together to establish short- and long-term goals and identify immediate treatment priorities, including icing and stretching to decrease her pain, as well as gentle hip-strengthening exercises. They also discuss temporary alternative methods for Karen to maintain her fitness without continuing to aggravate her injury and prolong her recovery, such as swimming or biking. She is also prescribed a home-exercise program consisting of a series of activities to perform daily to help speed her recovery.

Together, they outline a 4-week rehabilitation program. Karen sees her physical therapist 1 to 2 times each week. He assesses her progress, performs manual therapy techniques, and advances her exercise program as appropriate. He advises her as to when she can begin to carefully resume running, and establishes a day-by-day plan to help her safely build back up to her desired mileage. Karen performs an independent daily exercise routine at home, including stretching and strengthening activities, which her physical therapist modifies as she regains strength and movement.

After 4 weeks of patient work, Karen no longer experiences pain or stiffness in her hip, and resumes her desired training program in preparation for her upcoming 5K race.

On the day of the race, Karen runs pain free and crosses the finish line in a personal best time!


What Kind of Physical Therapist Do I Need?

All physical therapists are prepared through education and experience to treat greater trochanteric bursitis. However, you may want to consider:

  • A physical therapist who is experienced in treating people with greater trochanteric bursitis. Some physical therapists have a practice with an orthopedic or musculoskeletal focus.

  • A physical therapist who is a board-certified clinical specialist or who completed a residency or fellowship in orthopedic or sports physical therapy. This physical therapist has advanced knowledge, experience, and skills that may apply to your condition.

You can find physical therapists who have these and other credentials by using Find a PT, the online tool built by the American Physical Therapy Association to help you search for physical therapists with specific clinical expertise in your geographic area.

General tips when you're looking for a physical therapist (or any other health care provider):

  • Get recommendations from family and friends or from other health care providers.

  • When you contact a physical therapy clinic for an appointment, ask about the physical therapists' experience in helping people who have greater trochanteric bursitis.

  • During your first visit with the physical therapist, be prepared to describe your symptoms in as much detail as possible, and describe what makes your symptoms worse.


Further Reading

The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) believes that consumers should have access to information that could help them make health care decisions and also prepare them for a visit with their health care provider.

The following articles provide some of the best scientific evidence related to physical therapy treatment of greater trochanteric bursitis. The articles report recent research and give an overview of the standards of practice both in the United States and internationally. The article titles are linked either to a PubMed* abstract of the article or to free full text, so that you can read it or print out a copy to bring with you to your health care provider.

Tan LA, Benkli B, Tuchman A, et al. High prevalence of greater trochanteric pain syndrome among patients presenting to spine clinic for evaluation of degenerative lumbar pathologies. J Clin Neurosci. 2018;53:89–91. Article Summary in PubMed.

Mulligan EP, Middleton EF, Brunette M. Evaluation and management of greater trochanter pain syndrome. Phys Ther Sport. 2015;16(3):205–214. Article Summary in PubMed.

Grumet RC, Frank RM, Slabaugh MA, et al. Lateral hip pain in an athletic population: differential diagnosis and treatment options. Sports Health. 2010;2(3):191–196. Free Article.

* PubMed is a free online resource developed by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). PubMed contains millions of citations to biomedical literature, including citations in the National Library of Medicine’s MEDLINE database.

Authored by Allison Mumbleau, PT, DPT, SCS. Reviewed by the MoveForwardPT.com editorial board. Revsied by Caleb Pagliero, PT, of APTA's Academy of Orthopaedic Physical Therapy. Reviewed by APTA Section liaison.  




Guide to Osgood-Schlatter Disease

What is Osgood-Schlatter Disease?

Osgood-Schlatter disease occurs when there is irritation to the top, front portion of the shin bone (tibia) where the tendon attached to the kneecap (patella) meets the shin bone. It occurs when there is an increased amount of stress placed upon the bones where the tendons attach. This is most often the result of increased activity levels by an adolescent athlete.

Our musculoskeletal system is made up of bones and surrounding soft tissue structures, including muscles, ligaments (which connect bone to bone), and tendons (which connect muscle to bone). These structures all play a role in helping us move.

During adolescence our bodies grow at a rapid rate. As our bodies develop, our bones are growing longer. Throughout this phase, our growth plates (epiphyseal plates) are susceptible to injury. A growth plate is the site at the end of a bone where new bone tissue is made and bone growth occurs. Females typically experience the most rapid growth between approximately 11 to 12 years of age, and males typically experience this growth surge between approximately 13 and 14 years of age. Males experience OS more frequently than females, likely due to an increased rate of sports participation.

Structures in our body might become irritated if they are asked to do more than they are capable of doing. Injuries can occur in an isolated event, but OS disease is most likely the cumulative effect of repeated trauma. OS is most frequently experienced in adolescents who regularly participate in running, jumping, and "cutting" (rapid changes in direction) activities.

When too much stress is present (ie, from rapid growth) and when the body is overworked (ie, either too much overall volume of exercise, or too much repetition), the top of the shin can become painful and swollen. As this condition progresses, the body’s response to bone stress can be an increase in bone production; an adolescent may begin to develop a boney growth that feels like a bump on the front of the upper shin.

OS can start as mild soreness, but can progress to long-lasting pain and limited function, if not addressed early and appropriately.

Back to Top

How Does it Feel?

With Osgood-Schlatter, you may experience:

  • Gradually worsening pain below your knee, at the top of the shin bone.

  • Pain that worsens with exercise.

  • Swelling and tenderness at the top of the shin.

  • A boney growth at the top of the shin.

  • Loss of strength in the quadriceps muscle (connecting the hip to the knee).

  • Increased tightness in the quadriceps muscle.

  • Loss of knee motion.

  • Discomfort with daily activities that use your knee, like kneeling, squatting, or walking up and down stairs.

Back to Top

How Is It Diagnosed?

Diagnosis of OS begins with a thorough medical history, including specific questions regarding athletic participation (sports played, frequency of practices/games, positions). Your physical therapist will assess different measures, such as sensation, motion, strength, flexibility, tenderness, and swelling. Your physical therapist will perform several tests specific to the knee joint, and may ask you to briefly demonstrate the activities or positions that cause your pain, such as walking, squatting, and stepping up or down stairs.

Because the knee and hip are both involved in these aggravating activities, your physical therapist will likely examine your hip as well. Other nearby areas, such as your feet and core, will also be examined to determine whether they, too, might be contributing to your knee condition.

If your physical therapist suspects there may be a more involved injury than increased stress-related irritation (ie, if there is a recent significant loss of motion or strength, or severe pain when the knee is moved), your therapist will likely recommend a referral to an orthopedic physician for diagnostic imaging, such as ultrasound, x-ray, or MRI.

Back to Top

How Can a Physical Therapist Help?

Once other conditions have been ruled out and OS is diagnosed, your physical therapist will work with you to develop an individualized treatment plan tailored to your specific knee condition and your goals. The goal of physical therapy is to accelerate your recovery and return to pain-free activity. There are many physical therapy treatments that have been shown to be effective in treating OS, and among them are:

Range of Motion Therapy. Your physical therapist will assess the motion of your knee and its surrounding structures, and design gentle exercises to help you work through any stiffness and swelling to return to a normal range of motion.

Strength Training. Your physical therapist will teach you exercises to strengthen the muscles around the knee so that each muscle is able to properly perform its job, and stresses are eased so the knee joint is properly protected.

Manual Therapy.Physical therapists are trained in manual (hands-on) therapy. If needed, your physical therapist will gently move your kneecap or patellar tendon and surrounding muscles as needed to improve their motion, flexibility, and strength. These techniques can target areas that are difficult to treat on your own. 

Pain Management.Your physical therapist may recommend therapeutic modalities, such as ice and heat, or a brace to aid in pain management.

Functional Training.Physical therapists are experts at training athletes to function at their best. Your physical therapist will assess your movements and teach you to adjust them to relieve any extra stress on the front of your knee.

Education. The first step to addressing your knee pain is rest. Your physical therapist will explain why this is important and develop a plan for your complete rehabilitation.

Back to Top

Can this Injury or Condition be Prevented?

Fortunately, there is much that can be done to prevent the cascade of events that lead to OS. Physical therapists focus on:

  • Educating coaches, parents, and athletes on guidelines for sports participation, explaining common causes of overuse injuries, and providing strategies for prevention.

  • Educating athletes on the risks of playing through pain.

  • Scheduling adequate rest time to recover between athletic events.

  • Tracking a young athlete’s growth curves (height, weight, BMI) to identify periods of increased injury risk.

  • Developing an athlete-specific flexibility and strengthening routine to be followed throughout the athletic season.

  • Encouraging consultation with a physical therapist whenever symptoms appear.

Back to Top

Real Life Experiences

Caleb is a 13-year-old boy who has been playing basketball since he was in the first grade. When younger, Caleb played only during the winter season. Over the course of the last year, however, he has attended 2 basketball camps during the summer, played on his middle-school team during the winter, and is now playing AAU basketball in the spring.

Caleb also chose to join the track team this spring, competing in the high jump and sprint events to improve his basketball skills. Over the past 3 months, Caleb has grown 2 inches, and both he and his basketball coaches are excited about his recent growth.

Recently, Caleb has been busy playing in weekly AAU tournaments with 1 to 2 track meets during the week. But when he got home from track practice on Monday, he told his dad that his leg was hurting. He said that it had begun getting sore while playing basketball over the weekend, but he didn’t want to tell his coach because he wanted to continue to play. Now he feels like the top of his shin is tender to touch, and he is unable to fully bend his knee without increased pain.

His dad realizes that this is more than the expected postactivity soreness; he immediately calls their local physical therapist.

Caleb's physical therapist takes his health history and performs an extensive examination. It becomes clear that Caleb has not scheduled appropriate rest times between his athletic activities, and that he is experiencing a growth spurt. The physical examination reveals that the top of Caleb’s shin is very tender, the area around his knee is swollen, and he has lost knee motion and strength. OS is diagnosed.

Together, Caleb and his physical therapist, father, and basketball and track coaches develop a treatment plan to help him return to pain-free sport participation. It begins with a 2-week period of rest where Caleb performs only minimal running exercise, and works regularly with his physical therapist on stretching, strengthening, balance, and coordination exercises, and on improving his squatting movements.

While at basketball practice, Caleb continues to work on his ball handling and free-throw shooting, activities that won't increase his knee pain.

After 2 weeks, when his knee is less tender, Caleb, his physical therapist, and his coaches develop a plan for his gradual return to full participation in track and basketball. They help Caleb understand how important it is to be honest about his knee pain, and to communicate with his coach if it starts to bother him again.

A month later, Caleb is back participating in all his track and basketball activities. He has changed his routine to allow for adequate warm-up time before and after each practice, and sufficient rest periods between activities. He makes sure his dad or coaches are keeping track of how much time he spends at practice and at rest.

Caleb decides to spend more time during the week working on his stretching, so he can reduce any risk of pain as he continues to grow. At the end of the season, Caleb’s AAU team wins the state championship—and he sets a new personal-best record in both the high jump and the 100-meter sprint!

Back to Top

What Kind of Physical Therapist Do I Need?

All physical therapists are prepared through education and clinical experience to treat a variety of conditions or injuries. You may want to consider:

  • A physical therapist who is experienced in treating people with orthopedic or musculoskeletal injuries.

  • A physical therapist who is a board-certified specialist or has completed a residency in orthopedic or sports physical therapy, as the therapist will have advanced knowledge, experience, and skills that apply to an athletic population.

You can find physical therapists that have these and other credentials by using Find a PT, the online tool built by the American Physical Therapy Association to help you search for physical therapists with specific clinical expertise in your geographic area.

General tips when you're looking for a physical therapist (or any other health care provider):

  • Get recommendations from family and friends or from other health care providers.

  • When you contact a physical therapy clinic for an appointment, ask about the physical therapists' experience in helping young athletes with knee pain.

  • During your first visit with the physical therapist, be prepared to describe your symptoms in as much detail as possible, and report activities that make your symptoms worse.

Back to Top

Further Reading

The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) believes that consumers should have access to information that could help them make health care decisions, and also prepare them for a visit with their health care provider.

The following articles provide some of the best scientific evidence related to physical therapy treatment of athletic injuries. The articles report recent research and give an overview of the standards of practice both in the United States and internationally. The article titles are linked either to a PubMed* abstract of the article or to free full text, so that you can read it or print out a copy to bring with you to your health care provider.

Whitmore A. Osgood-Schlatter disease. JAAPA. 2013;26(10):51–52. Article Summary on PubMed.

Maffulli N, Longo UG, Spiezia F, Denaro V. Aetiology and prevention of injuries in elite young athletes. Med Sport Sci. 2011;56:187–200. Article Summary on PubMed.

Stein CJ, Micheli LJ. Overuse injuries in youth sports. Phys Sportsmed. 2010;38(2):102–108. Article Summary on PubMed.

* PubMed is a free online resource developed by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). PubMed contains millions of citations to biomedical literature, including citations in the National Library of Medicine’s MEDLINE database.

 Authored by Allison Mumbleau, PT, DPT, SCS. Reviewed by the MoveForwardPT.com editorial board.


Physical Therapist's Guide to Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is a common disease that causes a thinning and weakening of the bones. It can affect people of any age. Women have the greatest risk of developing the disease, although it also occurs in men. Osteoporosis affects 55% of Americans aged 50 or older; one-half of women and a quarter of men will fracture a bone as a result of low bone density (osteopenia) or osteoporosis. Thin bones are the cause of 1.5 million fractures per year in the United States; hip fractures alone result in 300,000 hospitalizations. It is important to diagnosis low bone density or osteoporosis early so that steps can be taken to rebuild bone strength and lessen the risk of fracture.

What is Osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis is a bone disease characterized by low bone density (thickness of the bone), decreased bone strength, and a change in the bone structure, which can lead to an increased risk of fracture. The normal bone structure becomes thinned out and porous with poor nutrition, aging, or when osteoporosis develops, lessening the ability of the bone to withstand the typical forces that are applied in everyday living. Fractures from low bone density and osteoporosis can be serious, causing pain and affecting quality of life.

Bone is living tissue. Normally, one type of cell removes bone and another type of cell adds bone in a balanced, ongoing process. In osteoporosis, bones weaken when not enough new bone is formed and/or too much bone is lost. This imbalance commonly begins in women during the first 5 years of menopause. However, it can also occur in men and in children, often due to diseases that affect bone development, such as celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, spina bifida, cystic fibrosis, or kidney disease. Some medicines, such as steroids, may increase the risk of developing osteoporosis. Athletes who are underweight during the time of peak bone development are also susceptible.

There are many factors that can cause a person to be at risk for developing osteoporosis. It is important to know your risks so that you can be diagnosed and proactive in your treatment.

Risk Factors for Osteoporosis

Noncontrollable risks

  • Female gender

  • Small frame

  • Advanced age

  • Hormone levels

  • Genetics

  • Predisposing medical conditions

Controllable risks

  • Cigarette smoking

  • Excessive alcohol intake

  • Inactive lifestyle

  • Excessive caffeine intake

  • Lack of weight-bearing exercise

  • Drugs (eg, steroids, heparin)

  • Poor health

  • Low weight

  • Calcium-poor diet

  • Low vitamin D levels

 

How Does it Feel?

Osteoporosis is a disease that can be "silent." There may be no outward symptoms until a fracture occurs. If you are middle-aged or older, you may notice a loss of height or the appearance of a humpback. You may also begin to experience pain between your shoulder blades or above the crest of the pelvis.

People with low bone density may experience fractures in everyday situations that would not occur in persons with healthy bones, such as breaking a hip or a wrist with a fall from a standing height, breaking a rib when opening a window or when receiving a hug, or breaking an ankle after stepping off a curb. These are called fragility fractures and are a red flag for bone disease. Spinal compression fractures, particularly those in the upper back or thoracic spine (area between the neck and the lower back), are the most common fractures, followed by hip and wrist fractures.

How Is It Diagnosed?

If you are seeing a physical therapist for back pain or other rehabilitation issues, the therapist will review your medical, family, medication, exercise, dietary, and hormonal history, conduct a complete physical examination, and determine your risk factors for osteoporosis. The assessment may lead the physical therapist to recommend further testing.

Osteoporosis is best diagnosed through a quick and painless specialized X-ray called the DXA, which measures bone density. The results are reported using T-scores and Z-scores.

  • The T-score compares your score to that of healthy 30-year-old adults. If you have a T-score of -1 or less, you have a greater risk of having a fracture.

  • If the T-score is -2.5 or less you will receive the diagnosis of osteoporosis.

  • The Z-score compares your bone mineral density to those of the same sex, weight, and age. It is used for those whose bone mass has not yet peaked, premenopausal women, and men older than 50.

Other methods of measuring bone density include X-ray, ultrasound, and CT scan. 

Back to Top

How Can a Physical Therapist Help?

Your physical therapist can develop a specific program based on your individual needs to help improve your overall bone health, keep your bones healthy, and help you avoid fracture. Your physical therapist may teach you:

  • Specific exercises to build bone or decrease the amount of bone loss

  • Proper posture to protect your spine from fracture

  • Proper alignment during activities of daily living

  • How to improve your balance so as to reduce your risk of falling

  • How to adjust your environment to protect your bone health

Healthy bone is built and maintained through a healthy lifestyle. Your physical therapist will teach you specific exercises to meet your particular needs.

The exercise component for bone building or slowing bone loss is very specific and similar for all ages. Bone grows when it is sufficiently and properly stressed, just as muscle grows when challenged by more than usual weight. Two types of exercise are optimal for bone health: weight-bearing and resistance.

It is best for a physical therapist to provide your individual bone-building prescription to ensure that you are neither overexercising nor underexercising. Typically, exercises are performed 2 to 3 times a week as part of an overall fitness program.

Weight-bearing exercises

  • Dancing

  • Jogging (if your bone density is higher than -3.0)

  • Racquet sports

  • Heel drops

  • Stomping

Resistance exercises

  • Weight lifting in proper spine and lower-extremity alignment

  • Use of exercise bands

  • Gravity resistance (eg, push-ups, prone trunk extension with cushion to protect lowest ribs, single-leg heel raises, squats, lunges, sustained standing yoga poses in neutral spine position)

  • Exercises that reduce or stabilize kyphosis (hunchback)

  • Balance exercises

If you are diagnosed with osteoporosis or low bone density, your physical therapist will work with you to:

  • Build bone or lessen the amount of bone loss at areas most vulnerable to fracture through exercise—hip, spine, shoulder, arms.

  • Improve your dynamic balance to avoid falls.

  • Improve your posture.

  • Adjust your work and living environments to limit risk.

  • Help you avoid exercises and movements that may contribute to spinal fracture, including any type of sit-up or crunch, and excessive spinal or hip twisting.

Conservative treatment of a fracture includes bed rest and appropriate pain treatment. Your physical therapist will work with you to:

  • Decrease your pain through positioning and other pain-relieving modalities. Individualized physical therapist regimens can help reduce pain without the need for medications, such as opioids.

  • Provide appropriate external devices, such as bracing, to promote healing and improve posture.

  • Decrease your risk of a fall, strengthen your muscles, and improve your postural alignment.

  • Avoid exercises that involve too much forward or side bending or twisting.

  • Avoid water or endurance exercises, as they have been shown to negatively affect bone density.

If your pain lasts longer than 6 weeks following a spinal fracture, you can discuss surgical options, such as vertebroplasty or kyphoplasty, with your physical therapist, primary care physician, and surgeon.

Children and adolescents. Physical therapists can educate families and youth groups on proper exercise and posture, and about the need to move daily to build bone strength and prevent bone loss. Children with health issues such as spina bifida, diabetes, Crohn's disease, and cerebral palsy are at a greater risk for bone disease and can particularly benefit from the guidance of a physical therapist. Proper physical conditioning is crucial for children and adolescents: the majority of bone is built during adolescence and peaks by the third decade of life.

Middle-aged and older adults. As people age, they may begin to notice postural, balance, and strength changes. Physical therapists work with middle-aged and older adults to:

  • Develop individualized exercise programs to promote bone growth or lessen bone loss

  • Improve dynamic balance to avoid falls

  • Improve posture

  • Improve the strength of back muscles

  • Improve hip strength and mobility

Can this Injury or Condition be Prevented?

Osteoporosis can be prevented by building adequate bone density through childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. Building strong bones requires an adequate intake of calcium and vitamin D, and regular exercise.

There are steps to take to improve bone health at any age. An active lifestyle that includes resistance and weight-bearing exercise is important to maintain healthy bone. It is also important to avoid habits that promote bone loss, such as smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and an inadequate intake of calcium in your diet. Maintaining good body mechanics and posture also contribute to good bone health. We have no control over the genetic tendencies we have inherited, but we can choose to manage osteoporosis through proper medication, diet, and appropriate exercise.

As with any health issue, an overall healthy lifestyle is important for staying well.

Real Life Experiences

Anna is a 69-year-old retired legal secretary. She has enjoyed her early years of retirement, taking long walks in beautiful settings across the United States. Two years into her retirement, however, she began having knee pain during some of her walks, which gradually grew worse. Last year, she had a total knee replacement due to arthritis. She now walks with a cane because of chronic knee and ankle pain, and has experienced a loss of balance. She also has developed a rounded upper back, and low back pain. She seeks the help of a physical therapist.

Anna's physical therapist performs an assessment that includes a medical review for osteoporosis risk factors and for other health issues. He evaluates her range of motion and strength, testing her arms, legs, and trunk—especially her upper back. He tests the flexibility of her spine and her balance, her walking ability, and her risk of falling. Anna's walking style is uneven and she leans heavily on her cane. A DXA scan reveals that Anna has lost bone density in her spine and both hips. A vertebral fracture assessment X-ray shows that she has painless compression fractures of her spine. Her physical therapist diagnoses osteoporosis of the spine.

Anna first works with her physical therapist to improve her posture and knee function through flexibility and strengthening exercises, so she can walk more normally while working on her balance to lower her fall risk. She tells him her main goal is to be able to take walks in the park again.

Anna’s physical therapist teaches her safe trunk movement to avoid spinal fracture. Anna agrees to wear a dynamic trunk brace 2 hours a day to help make her posture more upright. She practices weight-bearing exercises with considerations for her arthritis, and learns resistive strengthening exercises for her spine and hip. Anna's physical therapist designs a gentle home-exercise program for her as well.

By her last visit, the flexibility and strength of Anna’s trunk and legs and her tolerance of physical activity have improved. The quality of her walking and dynamic balance are measurably improved, and her risk of falling has decreased. Anna feels much more confident about managing her condition.

Just this past week, Anna joined a therapeutic senior walking group that meets at the local botanic garden twice a week. She is thrilled to be enjoying gentle walks in nature again, and looks forward to coordinating other activities with her new group of friends!

This story was based on a real-life case. Your case may be different. Your physical therapist will tailor a treatment program to your specific case.

What Kind of Physical Therapist Do I Need?

All physical therapists are prepared through education and experience to treat those with osteoporosis. However, if you have a diagnosis of osteoporosis or low bone density, you may want to consider:

  • A physical therapist who is a board-certified clinical specialist or who completed a residency or fellowship in orthopedic physical therapy or geriatric physical therapy. This physical therapist has advanced knowledge, experience, and skills that may apply to your condition.

  • A physical therapist who specializes in the treatment of osteoporosis.

You can find physical therapists with these and other credentials by using Find a PT, the online tool by the American Physical Therapy Association that can help you search for physical therapists with specific clinical expertise in your geographic area.

General tips when you're looking for a physical therapist (or any other health care provider):

  • Get recommendations from family and friends or from other health care providers.

  • When you contact a physical therapy clinic for an appointment, ask about the physical therapists' experience in helping people who have osteoporosis.

Further Reading

The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) believes that consumers should have access to information that can help them make health care decisions and also prepare them for a visit with their health care provider.

The following websites are important and reputable resources to obtain more information about improving your bone health:

National Osteoporosis Foundation. Accessed March 28, 2018.   

American Bone Health. Accessed March 28, 2018.

American Bone Health. FORE fracture risk calculator. Accessed March 28, 2018.

Osteoporosis Canada. Accessed March 28, 2018.

Osteoporosis Canada. Too fit to fracture series. Accessed March 28, 2018.

National Bone Health Alliance. Accessed March 28, 2018.

Own the Bone. Accessed March 28, 2018.

National Osteoporosis Foundation and Pilates Anytime. Safe movement video series. Accessed March 28, 2018.

MedBridge. Osteoporosis education courses for physical therapists. Accessed March 28, 2018.

Office of the US Surgeon General. The 2004 Surgeon General’s report on bone health and osteoporosis. Accessed March 28, 2018. 

Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee, US Dept of Health and Human Services. Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee Report, 2008Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services. Published June 2008. Accessed March 28, 2018. 

The following articles provide some of the best scientific evidence related to physical therapy treatment of osteoporosis and fracture prevention. The articles report recent research and give an overview of the standards of practice both in the United States and internationally. The article titles are linked either to a Pub Med* abstract of the article or to free full text, so that you can read it or print out a copy to bring with you to your health care provider.

Watson SL, Weks BK, Weis LJ, Harding AT, Horan SA, Beck BR. High-intensity resistance and impact training improves bone mineral density and physical function in postmenopausal women with osteopenia and osteoporosis: the LIFTMOR randomized controlled trial. J Bone Miner Res. 2018;33(2):211–220. Article Summary in PubMed.

Beck BR, Daly RM, Singh MA, Taaffe DR. Exercise and Sports Science Australia (ESSA) position statement on exercise prescription for the prevention and management of osteoporosis. J Sci Med Sport. 2017;20(5):438–445. Article Summary in PubMed.

Sözen T, Özışık L, Başaran NÇ. An overview and management of osteoporosis. Eur J Rheumatol. 2017;4(1):46–56. Free Article.

Giangregorio LM, McGill S, Wark JD, et al. Too fit to fracture: outcomes of a Delphi consensus process on physical activity and exercise recommendations for adults with osteoporosis with or without vertebral fractures. Osteoporos Int. 2015;26(3):891–910. Free Article.

Bansal S, Katzman WB, Giangregorio LM. Exercise for improving age-related hyperkyphotic posture: a systematic review. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2014;95(1):129–140. Free Article.

Clark EM, Carter L, Gould VC, Morrison L, Tobias JH. Vertebral fracture assessment (VFA) by lateral DXA scanning may be cost-effective when used as part of fracture liaison services or primary care screening. Osteoporos Int. 2014;25(3):953–964. Article Summary in PubMed.

Siris ES, Adler R, Bilezikian J, et al. The clinical diagnosis of osteoporosis: a position statement from the National Bone Health Alliance Working Group. Osteoporos Int. 2014;25(5):1439–1443. Free Article.

Silva BC, Boutroy S, Zhang C, et al. Trabecular bone score (TBS): a novel method to evaluate bone microarchitectural texture in patients with primary hyperparathyroidism. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2013;98(5):1963–1970. Free Article.

Cheung AM, Giangregorio L. Mechanical stimuli and bone health: what is the evidence? Curr Opin Rheumatol. 2012;24:561–566. Article Summary in PubMed.

Pfeifer M, Kohlwey L, Begerow B, Minne HW. Effects of two newly developed spinal orthoses on trunk muscle strength, posture, and quality-of-life in women with postmenopausal osteoporosis: a randomized trial. Am J Phys Med Rehabil. 2011;90:805–815. Article Summary on PubMed.

Kasukawa Y, Miyakoshi N, Hongo M, et al. Relationships between falls, spinal curvature, spinal mobility and back extensor strength in elderly people. J Bone Miner Metab. 2010;28:82–87. Article Summary in PubMed.

Nikander R, Kannus P, Dastidar M, et al. Targeted exercises against hip fragility. Osteoporos Int. 2009;20:1321–1328. Article Summary in PubMed.

Hongo M, Itoi E, Sinaki M, et al. Effect of low-intensity back exercise on quality of life and back extensor strength in patients with osteoporosis: a randomized controlled trial. Osteoporos Int. 2007;18:1389–1395. Article Summary in PubMed.

Vainionpaa A, Korpelainen R, Leppaluoto J, Jamsa T. Effects of high-impact exercise on bone mineral density: a randomized controlled trial in premenopausal women. Osteoporos Int. 2005;16:191–197. Article Summary in PubMed.

*PubMed is a free online resource developed by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). PubMed contains millions of citations to biomedical literature, including citations in the National Library of Medicine's MEDLINE database.

Authored by Mary Saloka Morrison, PT, DScPT, MHS. Reviewed by the MoveForwardPT.com editorial board.



Patellofemoral Knee Pain

Patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS) refers to pain at the front of the knee, in and around the kneecap (patella). PFPS is one of the most common types of knee pain experienced in the United States, particularly among athletes, active teenagers, older adults, and people who perform physical labor. Patellofemoral pain affects more women than men and accounts for 20% to 25% of all reported knee pain. Physical therapists design exercise and treatment programs for people experiencing PFPS to help them reduce their pain, restore normal movement, and avoid future injury.

Current research indicates that PFPS is an "overuse syndrome," which means that it may result from repetitive or excessive use of the knee. Other contributing factors may include:

  • Weakness, tightness, or stiffness in the muscles around the knee and hip

  • An abnormality in the way the lower leg lines up with the hip, knee, and foot

  • Improper tracking of the kneecap

These conditions can interfere with the ability of the kneecap to glide smoothly on the femur (the bone that connects the knee to the thigh) in the femoral groove (situated along the thigh bone) during movement. The friction between the undersurface of the kneecap and the femur causes the pain and irritation commonly seen in PFPS. The kneecap also may fail to track properly in the femoral groove when the quadriceps muscle on the inside front of the thigh is weak, and the hip muscles on the outside of the thigh are tight. The kneecap gets pulled in the direction of the tight hip muscles and can track or tilt to the side, which irritates the tissues around the kneecap.

PFPS often occurs in people who are physically active or who have suddenly increased their level of activity, especially when that activity involves repeated knee motion, such as running, stair climbing, squatting, or repeated carrying of heavy loads. Older adults may experience age-related changes that cause the cartilage on the undersurface of the kneecap to wear out, resulting in pain and difficulty completing daily tasks without pain.

PatellofemoralPain_SM.jpg


 

How Does it Feel?

People with PFPS may experience:

  • Pain when walking up or down stairs or hills

  • Pain when walking on uneven surfaces

  • Pain that increases with activity and improves with rest

  • Pain that develops after sitting for long periods of time with the knee bent

  • A "crack" or "pop" when bending or straightening the knee

How Is It Diagnosed?

Your physical therapist will review your health history, perform a thorough examination, and conduct a series of tests to evaluate the knee. Your therapist may observe the alignment of your feet, analyze your walking and running patterns, and test the strength of your hip and thigh muscles to find out whether there is a weakness or imbalance that might be contributing to your pain. Your physical therapist also will check the flexibility of the muscles in your leg, paying close attention to those that attach at the knee.

Generally, X-rays are not needed to diagnose PFPS. Your physical therapist may consult with an orthopedic physician who may order an X-ray to rule out other conditions.

How Can a Physical Therapist Help?

After a comprehensive evaluation, your physical therapist will analyze the findings and, if PFPS is present, your therapist will prescribe an exercise and rehabilitation program just for you. Your program may include:

Strengthening exercises. Your physical therapist will teach you exercises targeted at the hip (specifically, the muscles of the buttock and thigh), the knee (specifically, the quadriceps muscle located on the front of your thigh that straightens your knee), and the ankle. Strengthening these muscles will help relieve pressure on the knee, as you perform your daily activities.

Stretching exercises. Your physical therapist also will choose exercises to gently stretch the muscles of the hip, knee, and ankle. Increasing the flexibility of these muscles will help reduce any abnormal forces on the knee and kneecap.

Positional training. Based on your activity level, your physical therapist may teach you proper form and positioning when performing activities, such as rising from a chair to a standing position, stair climbing, squatting, or lunging, to minimize excessive forces on the kneecap. This type of training is particularly effective for athletes.

Cross-training guidance. PFPS is often caused by overuse and repetitive activities. Athletes and active individuals can benefit from a physical therapist’s guidance about proper cross-training techniques to minimize stress on the knees.

Taping or bracing. Your physical therapist may choose to tape the kneecap to reduce your pain and retrain your muscles to work efficiently. There are many forms of knee taping, including some types of tape that help align the kneecap and some that just provide mild support to irritated tissues around it. In some cases, a brace may be required to hold the knee in the best position to ensure proper healing.

Electrical stimulation. Your physical therapist may prescribe treatments with gentle electrical stimulation to reduce pain and support the healing process.

Activity-based exercises. If you are having difficulty performing specific daily activities, or are an athlete who wants to return to a specific sport, your physical therapist will design individualized exercises to rebuild your strength and performance levels.

Fitting for an orthosis. If the alignment and position of your foot and arch appear to be contributing to your knee pain, your physical therapist may fit you with a special shoe insert called an orthosis. The orthosis can decrease the stress to your knee caused by low or high arches.

Can this Injury or Condition be Prevented?

PFPS is much easier to treat if it is caught early. Timely treatment by a physical therapist may help stop any underlying problems before they become worse. If you are experiencing knee pain, contact a physical therapist immediately. 

Your physical therapist can show you how to adjust your daily activities to safeguard your knees, and teach you exercises to do at home to strengthen your muscles and bones—and help prevent PFPS.

Physical therapists can assess athletic footwear and recommend proper choices for runners and daily walkers alike. Wearing the correct type of shoes for your activity and changing them when they are no longer supportive is essential to injury prevention.

Real Life Experiences

Amelia is a 25-year-old office assistant who loves to start her day with a 5-mile run. Over the past 6 months, she has been training for her first marathon. She began by training on very flat ground and has just moved to a hilly area.

Last week, Amelia began feeling pain in the front of her left knee when running downhill. Today, she had to stop running after 3 miles because of her knee pain. She called her physical therapist.

Amelia's physical therapist completes a comprehensive evaluation, including a screening for other possible conditions that might be causing her pain. He uses special tests to measure her strength and finds that she has weak hip muscles and tenderness around the kneecap. He determines that she has developed PFPS. Amelia is shocked to learn that she also has flat feet, and she’s not wearing the right supportive running shoes.

To begin her treatments, Amelia’s physical therapist applies special tape to the front of her knee to help reduce her pain, and instructs her in the use of ice to decrease her symptoms. He performs gentle movements of her kneecap and the surrounding tissues to help increase mobility and decrease pain. He teaches her special exercises to gently strengthen the weak muscles that support the knee.

He also designs a specific home-exercise program for Amelia to perform between sessions. He provides information about proper shoe choices for her foot and body type, and advises her to purchase shoes that will give her feet the right type of support. He also recommends that she try deep-water running or swimming for a week instead of her regular running program, until her condition improves.

After her first week of physical therapy, Amelia notices a decrease in her pain and an increased ability to walk up and down stairs without pain. Her physical therapist approves her new footwear, and adds more challenging exercises to her session and her home program. He gives her the go-ahead to race-walk. She applies ice only when she has pain.

After 2 weeks, Amelia reports she is feeling even less pain. Her physical therapist continues to increase the intensity of her exercises, and she starts to run again—but only on flat surfaces and short distances combined with longer walk intervals.

After a few more weeks of therapy, Amelia occasionally feels only slight twinges of pain and gradually resumes her prior level of training. Her physical therapist recommends continuation of her stretching and strengthening exercises, and discharges her from physical therapy.

A few months later, Amelia completes her first marathon pain free. She is thrilled to learn that her time was a personal best!

This story was based on a real-life case. Your case may be different. Your physical therapist will tailor a treatment program to your specific case.

What Kind of Physical Therapist Do I Need?

All physical therapists are prepared through education and experience to treat a variety of conditions or injuries. You may want to consider:

  • A physical therapist who is experienced in treating people with orthopedic, or musculoskeletal, problems.

  • A physical therapist who is a board-certified clinical specialist or who has completed a residency or fellowship in orthopedic physical therapy and has advanced knowledge, experience, and skills that may apply to your condition.

You can find physical therapists who have these and other credentials by using Find a PT, the online tool built by the American Physical Therapy Association to help you search for physical therapists with specific clinical expertise in your geographic area.

General tips when you're looking for a physical therapist:

  • Get recommendations from family and friends or from other health care providers.

  • When you contact a physical therapy clinic for an appointment, ask about the physical therapist's experience in helping people with patellofemoral pain syndrome.

During your first visit with the physical therapist, be prepared to describe your symptoms in as much detail as possible, and say what makes your symptoms worse.

Further Reading

The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) believes that consumers should have access to information that could help them make health care decisions and also prepare them for their visit with their health care provider.

The following articles provide some of the best scientific evidence related to physical therapy treatment of patellofemoral pain syndrome. The articles report recent research and give an overview of the standards of practice both in the United States and internationally. The article titles are linked either to a PubMed* abstract of the article or to free access of the full article, so that you can read it or print out a copy to bring with you to your health care provider.

Tevhen DS, Robertson J. Knee pain: strengthen my hips? But it's my knees that hurt! J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2011-41-571. Article Summary on PubMed.

Davis IS, Powers CM. Patellofemoral pain syndrome: proximal, distal and local factors, an international retreat, April 30-May 2, 2009, Fells Point, Baltimore, MD. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2010;40:A1–A16. Article Summary on PubMed.

Fukuda TY, Rossetto FM, Magalhaes E, et al. Short-term effects of hip abductors and lateral rotators strengthening in females with patellofemoral pain syndrome: a randomized controlled clinical trial. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2010;40:736–742. Article Summary on PubMed.

Dixit S, DiFiori JP, Burton M, Mines B. Management of patellofemoral pain syndrome. Am Fam Physician. 2007;75:194–202. Free Article.

Powers CM, Ward SR, Chan LD, et al. The effect of bracing on patella alignment and patellofemoral joint contact area. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2004;36:1226-1232. Article Summary on PubMed.

Bizzini M, Childs JD, Piva SR, Delitto A. Systematic review of the quality of randomized controlled trials for patellofemoral pain syndrome. J Ortho Sports Phys Ther. 2003;33:4–20. Article Summary on PubMed.

Crossley K, Bennell K, Green S, et al. Physical therapy for patellofemoral pain: a randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial. Am J Sports Med. 2002;30:857–865. Article Summary on PubMed.


* PubMed is a free online resource developed by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).  PubMed contains millions of citations to biomedical literature, including citations in the National Library of Medicine’s MEDLINE database.

 Authored by Christopher Bise, PT, MS, DPT. Revised by Julie Mulcahy, PT. Reviewed by the MoveForwardPT.com editorial board.

 

Ulnar Collateral Ligament Injury

Ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) injuries generally occur when repetitive stress damages the inside of the elbow, compromising stability. UCL injuries are most common in athletes who play "overhead" sports, such as volleyball and baseball, which require using the arms in an overhead position. These injuries are occurring in greater frequency with the rise of sport specialization. They are often referred to as "Tommy John" injuries, named after the famous baseball pitcher who underwent the first surgery for a UCL injury in 1974. A physical therapist can help improve your arm's strength and range of motion, and your body's overall stability and balance following a UCL injury.

What Are Ulnar Collateral Ligament Injuries?

The ulnar collateral ligament is a band of tissue that connects the inside of your upper arm (humerus) to the inside of your forearm (ulna). This ligament helps to support and stabilize your arm when you perform a motion, such as throwing a ball. A UCL injury may at first cause pain and tightness in the area. However, over time and with repetitive stress or trauma, the UCL can become stretched and even tear. Surgery is not always necessary to heal a UCL injury, but it may be performed if pain persists or the elbow feels unstable upon a return to sport or other activities.

Signs and Symptoms

With a UCL injury, you may experience:

  • Soreness or tightness along the inside of your elbow

  • Minor swelling and possible bruising along the inside of your arm

  • Possible numbness and tingling in your arm

  • Instability at your elbow joint (a feeling like your elbow might “give out” when you move it through certain motions)

  • Pain when using your arm in an overhead position (eg, throwing/pitching a ball, swinging a racquet)

  • Difficulty warming up for a sport, or needing a longer time to warm up

  • Poorer performance (eg, a decrease in pitching speed)

How Is It Diagnosed?

Your physical therapist will conduct a thorough evaluation that includes taking your health and activity history. Your physical therapist may ask you questions including:

  • When and how did this injury occur? (Sudden or gradual?)

  • How long have you had pain?

  • Have you had any numbness and tingling in your arm?

  • Did you feel a "pop" near your elbow when throwing or performing an overhead activity?

  • Have you experienced any instability (eg, a feeling of your arm “giving out”) when performing an overhead activity?

  • Have you experienced a decrease in job or sport performance?

  • What other sports or activities do you participate in?

  • Have you had to stop playing your sport, or performing your job, because of the injury to your elbow?

Your physical therapist may gently touch the area around your elbow joint to locate the specific area of pain. Your physical therapist may slightly bend your arm while applying pressure along the outside of your elbow joint, or ask you to mimic a throwing motion as the therapist resists against it.

To provide a definitive diagnosis, your physical therapist may collaborate with an orthopedic surgeon. The surgeon may order further tests, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or magnetic resonance arthrogram (MRA), to confirm the diagnosis and to rule out other possible damage.

How Can a Physical Therapist Help?

Your physical therapist can help improve your arm's strength and range of motion following a UCL injury, and help restore your shoulder and core stability, coordination, and balance. Your therapist also will work with you before and after any necessary surgery, and can help identify other issues that may have contributed to your injury, such as range of motion and strength deficits, or improper throwing mechanics. Your physical therapist will help you:

Boost your healing process. Decreasing stress across the injured area is the best way to promote healing of a UCL injury. Your physical therapist will likely tell you to take some time off from your sport or other activity. Your therapist may educate you on the RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) principle and may implement "cross-friction massage" to help the body supply nutrients to the injured ligament.

Strengthen your muscles. After your injury your arm may feel weaker. Strengthening the muscles of your shoulder, upper back, and shoulder blades in addition to those of the forearm will help decrease the stress at the elbow joint. Addressing lower-body balance or any weakness through your hips and trunk also may help decrease stress across your elbow.

Improve your range of motion. After your injury you may notice more difficulty straightening or bending your arm. Your physical therapist will work with you to improve your arm's range of motion, including possibly stretching your shoulder to help decrease stress on your elbow when performing overhead movements.

Correct your movements. While every sport requires different arm positions, certain positions may put an athlete at greater risk for injury to the elbow. Examining and modifying the movements you perform may help you safely return to your sport. Your physical therapist will help design a specific program to allow a gradual full return to activity.

Prepare to return to sport. An important component of preparing for a return to sports after an UCL injury is preparing the arm to properly withstand the stress placed on it during throwing or other overhead motions. Your physical therapist will work with you to establish and implement a progressive program to prepare you for a return to practice and competition.

If Surgery Is Required

If surgery is necessary, your physical therapist may measure your arm strength and range of motion prior to surgery to define a baseline goal to achieve following the procedure.

Immediately following surgery, your arm will likely be placed in a splint, brace, or sling to protect your elbow. Physical therapy will begin within the first week to 10 days following surgery. Your physical therapist will:

  • Provide appropriate guidance. You will receive an individualized treatment program of gradual rehabilitation that will ensure you heal in the safest and most effective way possible. 

  • Protect the graft/repair site in the early postoperative period. You will be provided a brace that will likely need to be worn for 5 to 6 weeks, depending on your surgeon’s preference. Your physical therapist will show you how to ensure you don’t bend your arm too much or rotate your shoulder too far during this time.

  • Improve how far you can move your shoulder and elbow. When you are ready, your physical therapist will help you gently bend and straighten your arm through different exercises and stretching techniques. Your therapist also will gently stretch your shoulder to help decrease stress across the elbow.

  • Improve the strength of your arm. Through a series of exercises, your physical therapist will work with you to improve your arm strength. Your hand grip and forearm strength will likely be the first things you will work on following surgery. As you progress, the exercises will begin to focus more on your shoulder blade and upper back muscles.

  • Improve muscle strength and coordination. As you begin to heal and progress, your exercises will become more specific to your sport or other activity.

Resuming sport-specific activities. An athlete who has experienced a UCL injury can begin to return to throwing at approximately 6 months after surgery. The return is based on the surgeon and physical therapist providing clearance to do so.

Returning to full competition. An athlete generally can be cleared to return to game competition approximately 12 to 14 months after surgery.

Can this Injury or Condition be Prevented?

Certain factors may increase a person’s chances of injuring the UCL. For example, shoulder and elbow range of motion imbalances may play a role in creating too much stress at the elbow. Balance and coordination deficits also can lead to improper movement during sporting or other activities. Your physical therapist will design an individualized treatment program to address and correct these deficits.

Current evidence suggests the biggest factors for athletes developing this injury are pitch velocity, and the overall volume of throwing and other overhead activities performed in a specific sport. Throwing with high velocity (>83 mph), pitching too many pitches, pitching on short rest, pitching while fatigued, and introducing new pitches in excess are all factors related to exposing the UCL to force that it may not be able to withstand. Other factors such as age, type of sport, and position played also may affect overall arm fitness and health. It is important to keep up with regular arm care and exercises in order to reduce the likelihood of injury. 

Real Life Experiences

Jason is an 18-year-old college baseball player who is also on the Dean’s List at school. Last week, he “pulled an all-nighter” studying for an important test, and pitched an important game on exam day.

Jason pitched a great first inning, but noticed his right elbow began to feel tight in the second inning; he lost some control over his pitches in the third. By the fourth inning, he was pushing through pain and tightness because he didn’t want to let his team down. When throwing a fast ball to the second batter in the fifth inning, he felt a “pop” and a sharp pain in his right elbow. He then felt numbness and tingling on the inside of his right forearm and was unable to continue pitching.

The school’s athletic trainer examined Jason, applied ice to the arm, and put it in a sling. He referred Jason to an orthopedic surgeon who specialized in baseball injuries. The surgeon diagnosed a severe UCL injury. After talking with the surgeon and his family, Jason decided to have surgery to reconstruct the UCL on his right elbow.

Immediately after surgery, Jason was placed in a custom splint that held his elbow at a 90° angle with a sling around his shoulder to support his arm. He began his physical therapy 10 days after his surgery.

Jason’s physical therapist gently removed his splint and helped him begin to move his right elbow and shoulder. He gave Jason a series of exercises to perform at home, to work on his posture, shoulder blade strength, and the overall range of motion of his elbow and shoulder.

Over the next few weeks, Jason teamed with his physical therapist to work on his shoulder and elbow range of motion, single-leg balance exercises, core strengthening, and posture and shoulder-blade exercises. As he regained strength and motion, Jason learned new exercises to strengthen the muscles of his shoulder. His physical therapist measured his range of motion to ensure he was on track, and introduced more intense exercises at the shoulder and elbow.

Jason then began a throwing program that gradually increased the stresses across his elbow as he moved from shorter- to longer-distance throws. His physical therapist and pitching coach instructed him to focus on his mechanics and be aware of the position of his arm, trunk, and legs when he threw.

When the new baseball season began, Jason was able to return to the starting lineup! With careful attention to the instructions of his physical therapist on adequate warm ups, safe throwing motions, maintaining shoulder and arm strength and overall balance, and not throwing too much, he was able to pitch a complete season.

Jason called his physical therapist after his last postseason game, proud to report that he had set a personal record for number of wins and earned run average!

This story was based on a real-life case. Your case may be different. Your physical therapist will tailor a treatment program to your specific case.

What Kind of Physical Therapist Do I Need?

Although all physical therapists are prepared through education and experience to treat UCL injuries, you may want to consider:

  • A physical therapist who is experienced in treating people with UCL injuries. Some physical therapists have a specialized practice with a focus on sports and orthopedics, and more specifically, the upper extremity.

  • A physical therapist who is a board-certified clinical specialist or who has completed a residency or fellowship in sports or orthopaedic physical therapy. This physical therapist has advanced knowledge, experience, and skills that may apply to your condition.

You can find physical therapists who have these and other credentials by using Find a PT, the online tool developed by the American Physical Therapy Association to help you search for physical therapists with specific clinical expertise in your geographic area.

General tips when you're looking for a physical therapist:

  • Get recommendations from family and friends or from other health care providers.

  • When you contact a physical therapy clinic for an appointment, ask about the physical therapists' experience in helping people who have UCL injuries.

  • During your first visit with the physical therapist, be prepared to describe your symptoms in as much detail as possible, and say what makes your symptoms worse.

Further Reading

The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) believes that consumers should have access to information that could help them make health care decisions and also prepare them for a visit with their health care provider.

The following articles provide some of the best scientific evidence related to physical therapy treatment of UCL injuries. The articles report recent research and give an overview of the standards of practice for treatment both in the United States and internationally. The article titles are listed by year and are linked either to a PubMed* abstract of the article or to free access of the full article, so that you can read it or print out a copy to bring with you to your health care provider.

Whiteside D, Martini DN, Lepley AS, Zernicke RF, Goulet GC. Predictors of ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction in Major League Baseball pitchers. Am J Sports Med. 2016;44(9):2202–2209. Article Summary in PubMed.

Bruce JR, Andrews JR. Ulnar collateral ligament injuries in the throwing athlete. J Am Acad Orthop Surg. 2014;22(5):315–325. Article Summary in PubMed.

Garrison JC, Cole MA, Conway JE, et al. Shoulder range of motion deficits in baseball players with an ulnar collateral ligament tear. Am J Sports Med. 2012;40(11):2597–2603. Article Summary on PubMed.

Shanley E, Rauh MJ, Michener LA, et al. Shoulder range of motion measures as risk factors for shoulder and elbow injuries in high school softball and baseball players. Am J Sports Med. 2011;39(9):1997–2006. Article Summary on PubMed.

Wilk KE, Macrina LC, Fleisig GS, et al. Correlation of glenohumeral internal rotation deficit and total rotational motion to shoulder injuries in professional baseball pitchers. Am J Sports Med. 2011;39(2):329–335. Article Summary on PubMed.

Fleisig GS, Andrews JR, Cutter GR, et al. Risk of serious injury for young baseball pitchers: a 10-year prospective study. Am J Sports Med. 2011;39(2):253–257. Article Summary on PubMed.

Hariri S, Safran MR. Ulnar collateral ligament injury in the overhead athlete. Clin Sports Med. 2010;29(4):619–644. Article Summary on PubMed.

Lin YC, Thompson A, Kung JT, et al. Functional isokinetic strength ratios in baseball players with injured elbows. J Sport Rehabil. 2010;19(1):21–29. Article Summary on PubMed.

Dines JS, Frank JB, Akerman M, Yocum LA. Glenohumeral internal rotation deficits in baseball players with ulnar collateral ligament insufficiency. Am J Sports Med. 2009;37(3):566–570. Article Summary on PubMed.

Reinold MM, Wilk KE, Macrina LC, et al. Changes in shoulder and elbow passive range of motion after pitching in professional baseball players. Am J Sports Med. 2008;36(3):523–527. Article Summary on PubMed.

Kibler WB, Sciascia AD, Uhl TL, et al. Electromyographic analysis of specific exercises for scapular control in early phases of shoulder rehabilitation. Am J Sports Med. 2008;36(9):1789–1798. Article Summary on PubMed.

Petty DH, Andrews JR, Fleisig GS, Cain EL. Ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction in high school baseball players. Am J Sports Med. 2004;32(5):1158–1164. Article Summary in PubMed.

*PubMed is a free online resource developed by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). PubMed contains millions of citations to biomedical literature, including citations in the National Library of Medicine’s MEDLINE database.

Revised by David Colvin, PT. Authored by Craig Garrison, PT, PhD, ATC, and Joseph Hannon, PT, DPT. Reviewed by the MoveForwardPT.com editorial board.