Sleep is an essential part of health and wellness, as it gives your body a chance to physically recover and supports important neurological and cardiovascular functions. It is estimated that between 50 and 70 million Americans suffer from sleep disturbances, which can seriously impact all of the major body systems. Physical therapists treat these systems and may play an important role in overall sleep health and wellness.
The loss of sleep is often directly related to pain. Aching joints and muscles can prevent falling asleep and staying asleep. Those who suffer from chronic illnesses potentially lose sleep at higher rates, which impacts symptom management and recovery.
Physical therapy can help address these issues, as physical therapists are specifically trained to assess each patient individually and develop a personalized treatment plan. As physical therapy addresses the neurological, cardiovascular, and musculoskeletal systems, these treatment plans often take a holistic approach that addresses both body and mind.
What is Physical Therapy?
Physical therapy is a treatment that involves exercises that help with mobility, pain management, chronic illnesses, and disabilities. This treatment takes a holistic approach to wellness, addressing multiple areas of the body. Physical therapists tend to look at the larger picture and how all the functions of the body and mind are working together.
There are 18 sections of physical therapy, with five specialties being the most common: orthopedic physical therapy; geriatric physical therapy; neurological physical therapy; cardiovascular and pulmonary rehabilitation; and pediatric physical therapy.
- Orthopedic physical therapy addresses the musculoskeletal system, which includes your bones, muscles, and joints. This is most commonly used to help heal athletic injuries, but also helps those who are recovering from orthopedic surgery and broken bones to increase mobility and improve movement.
- Geriatric physical therapy is designed to help with mobility and pain management as associated with aging. The elderly are often dealing with pain from arthritis and osteoporosis. Physical therapy can help keep them in better physical shape with improved mobility.
- Neurological physical therapy can help those with neurological disorders function more normally and maintain a sense of independence. This includes those suffering from cerebral palsy or Alzheimers, or recovering from a stroke.
- Cardiovascular and pulmonary physical therapy treats those with heart conditions or those who are recovering from a heart attack. This type of physical therapy can improve overall endurance and strengthen the cardiovascular system.
- Pediatric physical therapy specifically caters to children, from infancy through adolescence. This can help with early detection of disorders in children, improve motor functions, and help the child as they develop. It also strengthens and improves coordination.
Physical therapy is practiced in a wide variety of locations. Physical therapists often work in hospitals, care facilities, and clinics, helping patients with treatments and overall recovery. They also practice in fitness facilities and schools. Due to the nature of some treatments, certain physical therapists offer in-home care.
How Can PT Help With Sleep?
Physical therapy typically begins with a comprehensive evaluation that takes your overall wellness into consideration. Sleep is one aspect of your overall health. This comprehensive view helps establish a treatment plan that takes the whole picture of your health into consideration. Those suffering from sleep disorders and chronic illnesses may benefit from regular physical therapy.
In addition to exercises that help muscle and joint aches and pains, the ergonomics of sleep also play an important role in rest and recovery. Your sleeping position can exacerbate or relieve symptoms, so it is important to evaluate this as part of your physical therapy treatment plan. There is not a universal sleeping position that suits all sleep disorders, so it is important to understand your symptoms and what will help relieve them. Pillows can be used to provide additional support for your head, neck, and legs. Mattress firmness should also be taken into consideration.
PT and Managing Chronic Conditions
There are several common sleep disorders that may especially benefit from physical therapy, including Restless Leg Syndrome, sleep apnea, and insomnia. Physical therapy assessments can help with a diagnosis, treatment plan, and additional recommendations.
- Sleep apnea causes interruptions in breathing while you sleep, which decreases the amount of oxygen in your body. Though additional research is needed as studies are currently unconfirmed, it is possible for physical therapists to help diagnose and treat sleep apnea. There are also tongue and mouth exercises that strengthen throat muscles. For those suffering from obstructive sleep apnea, sleeping on your back can worsen symptoms.
- Restless Leg Syndrome results in an uncomfortable feeling in the legs, which can feel like pins and needles, itching, or pain. This disorder does not have a known cure, though symptoms can be managed with physical activity and medication. Cardiovascular physical therapy and physical exercises can increase blood flow and help with overall circulation. Physical therapists can also recommend daily exercises to help with symptoms.
- Insomnia is a common sleep disorder with a wide variety of causes and symptoms, typically characterized by difficulty falling or staying asleep. Physical therapy can help pinpoint sleep hygiene issues that contribute to insomnia. Therapy can also help establish daily exercises and routines to encourage a restful night’s sleep.
It is important to work with your doctor and medical professionals when diagnosing sleep disorders and establishing a treatment plan. Physical therapy is one aspect that can help with overall sleep health and wellness.
Are there Potential Downsides to Physical Therapy?
With a wide range of sleep disorders with varying symptoms and causes, the diagnoses and treatment of these types of disorders can be complicated. Depending on the type of disorder, treatment may need medical intervention and medication. Cognitive and emotional therapy may also play an important role in improving sleep health.
It should also be noted that a physical therapist can help with exercises and treatments that address physical symptoms, but they are not fully equipped to treat all sleep disorders. Physical therapy can help diagnose and treat certain symptoms, but it is not a cure-all. Certain types of physical therapy can even exacerbate underlying issues, as side effects can include muscle soreness, pain, and fatigue. These side effects can have a negative impact on falling or staying asleep.
For these reasons, it is especially important to consult with your primary care physician prior to beginning a treatment plan.
How Do You Get Started With Physical Therapy?
To get started with physical therapy, you may need a referral from your primary care physician. You can inquire about this at a general health and wellness exam, and discuss your symptoms with your doctor. Before beginning physical therapy, it is also important to consult with your insurance company to determine if physical therapy will be covered.
Once you are ready to get started, there are resources available to help you find a physical therapist. The APTA physical therapist directory allows you to narrow your search by location and specialty and provides contact information for available physical therapists.
Your first visit to a physical therapist will likely begin with a comprehensive exam and assessment. It is important to answer questions fully and provide as much information as possible. This will help the physical therapist provide a diagnosis and a general overview of a treatment plan. The physical therapy treatment will include exercises that are designed to manage pain, strengthen muscles, and improve overall mobility. Your physical therapist will most likely recommend exercises you can do at home in between therapy sessions.
Learn More About Physical Therapy
- American Physical Therapy Association: APTA is a professional organization with individual memberships available for physical therapists, physical therapist assistants, and physical therapy students. The website provides resources on patient care, new research in the field, and a community of physical therapists. There are ample educational resources to learn more about physical therapy.
- Choose PT: This APTA-provided resource for the public helps patients find physical therapists and understand more about their symptoms and available treatments. It includes podcasts, success stories of physical therapy treatments, and advice for pain management.
- Sleep Help Promotion: Practical Information for Physical Therapists: This academic article outlines the relevance of physical therapy when it comes to sleep health and wellness. It also provides suggestions for physical therapists working with patients who suffer from sleep disorders.
- Healing Pain Podcast: Can Better Sleep Contribute to Less Pain?: This episode of the Healing Pain podcast addresses how better sleep can help with pain management. The podcast includes input from Dr. Katie Siengsukon, an associate professor of physical therapy and rehabilitation science.
- Three Tips to Sleep Better from a Physical Therapist: This article covers pillow size, sleeping position, and stretches to do before bed. These simple guidelines are a good start and basic introduction to how physical therapy can provide benefits for better sleep.