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With active aging population, physical therapy pros in demand

Physical therapy is one of the hottest career fields out there. The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists physical therapy as the eighth-fastest growing job in the U.S. through 2014. Other national rankings of hottest jobs include physical therapy assistants (PTAs) and aids in top 10 rankings. And MONEY Magazine and www.salary.com list physical therapists as number 12 on a list of “The Best Jobs In America.”

The aging Baby Boomer population is behind the increasing demand for physical therapists.

“The fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population is our elderly over age 65,” said Tom Hester, who has a doctorate of physical therapy and is president of the Mississippi Chapter of the American Physical Therapy Association. “So we are all aging, and there is an emphasis on aging with health right now. People want not just added years, but added productive, healthy years. That creates demand for physical therapy. We are living longer. We have joint replacement. We are going to have neurological things like strokes. So there is a need for the rehabilitation of individuals who have had those kinds of diagnosis.”

In addition to helping provide rehabilitation for someone who has had a stroke, injury, fall or joint replacement, physical therapists now place an emphasis on prevention and wellness: What can be done to prevent a person from having a fall? How can the public be educated about the dangers in the home of small dogs and other obstacles that could cause a fall? How can people be educated about how to improve their sense of balance to prevent falls rather than having to treat patients with hip or head injuries after a fall?

“How we maintain our body functions like balance and strength allow us to be more healthy as we age,” said Hester, who is director for the physical therapist assistant (PTA) program at Itawamba Community College.

Three different systems are needed for balance: inner ear equilibrium, vision and the joint receptors in the ankles. As we age, all three of those systems are affected. Vision is diminishing, the neurological system declines, and ankles might not be as efficient, particularly in people who are sedentary. Ear infections can affect equilibrium.

“Any one of those things can diminish balance,” Hester said.
When one system declines, it might be necessary to find other ways to maintain balance. For example, someone might be accustomed to getting up at night and going to the bathroom without turning on the lights. But as you get older, you might be at more risk for a fall without turning on the lights.

Hester participates with the screening tests that are done in conjunction for people that involve standing against a mark on a wall and reaching forward far as they can safely without losing balance.

“Tests as simple as that give an idea of the kind of balance,” Hester said. “If we find that you can’t reach at least six inches forward in a test, you need to be evaluated by a physician. If you can’t reach at least six inches, you are at greatly increased risk for a fall.”

Activities such as ballroom dancing, a walking program, low-impact aerobics or tai chi might be recommended to help improve and maintain balance. Those kinds of exercise help improve or maintain strength and coordination, which helps with balance abilities.

Balance education can also include recommendations for medications. For example, some people who take blood pressure medicine can get dizzy when they first sit up in bed because of a momentary drop in blood pressure. The lightheadedness that could cause a fall can be avoided by sitting on the side of the bed to make sure you aren’t dizzy before taking off and moving away.

It is also a good idea to be aware of things that can cause falls like throw rugs that can get bunched up or slide on a tile floor, extension cords, grandkid’s toys and small pets.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.


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