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Physical therapy and exercise are often touted as ways to increase blood flow around an injury to promote faster healing. Perhaps surprisingly, the restriction of blood flow can also be an effective rehabilitation option in some cases, according to Tacoma doctor of physical therapy Ben Hannula.
“It’s a bit counter-intuitive,” admitted Hannula, a physical therapist with 3Dimensional Physical Therapy & Sports Conditioning in Tacoma.
Using an FDA-approved tourniquet, however – a device that looks very much like a blood pressure cuff – a certified physical therapist can strategically restrict the flow of blood to a limb for the stimulation of healing and muscle growth.
According to Hannula, the restriction of blood flow causes a metabolic cascade that increases the release of muscle growth factors into the blood. As a result of this response, the muscles are physiologically “tricked” into thinking they are working harder than they are.
Hence, blood flow restriction allows physical therapy patients to strengthen a particular part of the body without putting too much stress on an injured or healing joint.
“This is a good therapy option for client’s recovering from an injury and/or surgery, like a torn ACL, because it protects the injury during exercise by [allowing you to use] a lighter load,” Hannula said.
For example, traditional exercise methods may load 100 pounds of weight on a leg using a lift machine. However, with the cuff wrapped around the thigh of the injured leg to restrict blood flow, the load can be reduced to 20 to 30 pounds of weight.
Due to the “metabolic cascade” caused the blood flow restriction therapy, the leg “thinks” it’s working the extra weight. In reality, the leg is experiencing much less stress than it would with a heavier weight load.
“Using blood flow restriction, we no longer need to load joints and muscles with high-intensity resistance to build strength and improve hypertrophy (muscle size),” Hannula said.
Blood flow restriction therapy, he added, is also particularly appropriate for elderly patients who have little muscle mass and strength to start with.
Hannula admits that clients may be apprehensive at first, but once he explains the procedure and points out that such therapy can lead to quicker recovery and less stress on the injured limb, concerns often quickly subside.
While blood flow restriction has been a common practice in training rooms for professional athletes for years, it has recently gained recognition and acceptance in mainstream physical therapy.
“There has been more scientific study to support it and more training opportunities for physical therapists, who must be certified to initiate the therapy,” Hannula said.