This is the sixth in a series of guest posts by Jim Spell, The Better Way Back® Patient Ambassador. Check out part 1part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5.

My name is Jim Spell. I recently had a full lumbar fusion. I am now the proud owner of 18 screws and two rods totaling over two feet in length. My doctor compares it, with fondness and pride, to the Golden Gate Bridge. While I probably wouldn’t have found this metaphor as funny four months ago, my sense of humor is returning, along with my overall health.

More about physical therapy

There are as many physical therapy (PT) programs available as there are physicians and you should devote as much time and effort to choosing your physical recovery program as you did in selecting your doctors. Physical therapy can be daunting if you are new to the idea. Just know that whether as a result of surgery or injury, everyone needs to rehabilitate at one time or another. This is your time. Use it wisely and productively. Jump in with both feet, figuratively at first, and soon you will be bending and stretching with the best of patients.

Take an active part in your physical therapy

You can approach physical therapy alone and passively, or collectively – sharing when asked and asking when needed. Remember, these sessions are for your benefit. You are in charge of your own well-being and progress. Be honest and open about your concerns and limitations. If you feel better going slow and steady, speak up. A good therapist is a bad mind reader. Help them understand where you are in your recovery process and, more importantly, where you want to go.

It is perfectly acceptable to interview prospective therapists. Have they worked with other back patients? What is their “PT Philosophy”? Do they want you to go back to fishing and biking, or are they simply motivated to have you walk and move without pain? Are you comfortable with their approach and do they have a realistic timeline for recovery? How do they measure progress? Are they open to alternative therapies such as massage, heat, cold, and electrical stimulation? How do they define “quality of life” and, most importantly, your quality of life?

Find a therapist you feel comfortable with

You have the right to be comfortable with your therapist. He or she should be part expert and part cheerleader. Communication between the two of you must be clear and questions should be welcomed with enthusiasm and not frustration. This is a time for celebration of progress. It’s the therapist’s job to make you aware of your potential and to give you a successful formula for advancing your body toward a predetermined goal – a goal that both of you have agreed upon as achievable.

A good therapist will want to see some of your medical records, specifically your x-rays and MRIs. They will ask to talk to your doctor or a physician’s assistant familiar with your surgery. They will begin charting a complete program designed around however many sessions you have been prescribed and with your previously discussed goal in mind. They will alternate physical challenges with massage and other forms of “TLC.” During one session they will push and promote specific drills and in another session they will encourage your feelings and evaluate your current condition. They will listen to your questions and concerns and modify their behavior and yours as needed. And then it’s back to work.

Jump in

Come to each session ready to exercise. Wear loose fitting clothes and comfortable shoes. Remember too, there are sessions where your back and legs (among other parts) need to be accessible for heat, cold, and massage therapy. Listen to your body as you go through the prescribed exercises. Understand their purpose for strength, balance, movement, and positioning. If you don’t understand or cannot continue, stop and discuss your limitations. Exercises can be altered, repetitions can be lessened, and a therapist’s definition of progress can be re-adapted to yours.

For your part you have to respond openly, honestly, and effectively. You have to do the exercises given and accepted in a session throughout the week so as to benefit fully from the next session. Failure to do so results in a confusion of progress markers used by the therapist in order to gauge your recovery process, your strength, sense of balance, range of motion, and your overall well-being.

During the exercise process and due to the nature of balls, belts, weights, and machines, privacy is difficult to come by and it comes highly recommended to simply relax and enjoy the company around you. If misery loves company, then PT really loves a good laugh. Share when appropriate, as it may help someone else, and be supportive when necessary. One good laugh deserves another.

Set realistic expectations

The results of effective PT can sometimes be unpredictable. Physical therapy is a focused search for the correct avenue of movement toward well-being and as such, by its very nature as mental as well as physical exertion, often encounters the source of your individual stress — both physical and psychological. (There is a reason they call it “therapy.”)

A great therapist can see these moments coming and will accommodate your expressions of fear, anger, sadness, failure, and frustration. If this is you or could be you, take heart as it is perfectly normal. The key is to rest, relate, and “exercise” it out when you are ready. Again, a great therapist will guide you through such an event and use it to bolster trust and confidence through kindness and confidentiality. Like a good friend.

So now you have a grasp on the challenges associated with recovery. From movement to exercise to the application of physical therapy, all geared toward a productive and rewarding quality of life. You have committed to working through the discomfort by providing opportunities for expanding any limitations you might be feeling. Not only are you getting back to a normal life, but you are allowing yourself to begin celebrating a new and wonderful existence free from chronic pain and full of possibilities!

Many thanks to my “friends” at AXIS Sports Medicine for their unwavering support of my desire to “fly fish, fly plane”…