Proper nutrition can have a major impact on a patient’s healing journey after injury.
Physical therapists (PTs) tend to focus on functional capabilities, strength, flexibility, and other physical components of the rehabilitation process. However, we tend to forget about nutrition and the vital role it plays in healing and recovery.
A patient with optimal nutrition will have an overall quicker, more efficient healing process, allowing for better patient outcomes and the achievement of long-term goals. Unfortunately, hospital studies show that nearly 50% of our patients are not properly nourished, which can lead to a slower, less effective recovery process and possibly even long-term health complications.
Promoting proper nutrition
What can physical therapists do to promote proper nutrition? According to the APTA, “diet and nutrition are key components of primary, secondary and tertiary prevention of many conditions managed by physical therapists. It is within the professional scope of physical therapist practice to screen for and provide information on diet and nutritional issues to patients, clients, and the community.” (HOD PO6-15-22-17).
While it may not be within our scope as PTs to create individualized nutrition plans for our patients, we do have the basic knowledge of how nutrition can influence the recovery process after musculoskeletal injury. The rehabilitation process can be tedious and patients sometimes spend a lot of time working closely with PTs during the recovery process. It can be extremely beneficial to our patients to promote healthy eating habits and educate them on the effects nutrition can have on our body.
Recommended course: Nutrition: Understanding Macronutrients for Weight Loss
Downfalls of the Standard American Diet
The Standard American Diet (SAD) is filled with processed and non-nutrient dense foods. These suboptimal eating habits have led to decreased intake in nutrients needed to optimize overall health, including vitamins such as A, B12, C, calcium, and iron.
The lack of nutrients in the SAD combined with the increase intake of sodium and processed meats has been linked to many chronic diseases, including heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
Benefits of healthy eating habits
Healthy eating, which focuses on incorporating fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, will provide the body with an increase of dietary fiber, antioxidants and multiple vitamins and minerals. As a result, these nutrients will allow for improvement in weight, blood glucose levels, blood pressure, body inflammation and gut health.
Eating patterns, such as the Mediterranean diet, promote the consumption of whole foods and avoidance of processed foods. Physical therapists should encourage and support their patients to help facilitate healthier eating patterns as it can directly affect patient outcomes during their rehabilitation process.
Nutrition and scope of practice
Physical therapists often focus on strengthening to improve muscle weakness and optimize sports performance for their patients. The intake of dietary protein can have a strong influence on the body’s ability to gain muscle strength and mass. In older adults, protein consumption is vital in helping to maintain muscle mass and therefore decreases the likelihood of falls, fractures, and motor function loss.
Additionally, PTs play a role in bone health, aiding in the prevention and treatment of conditions such as osteoporosis. Physical activity can help promote bone mass and prevent osteopenia and osteoporosis and complications associated with the condition.
However, nutrients such as calcium and vitamin D can also be vital to bone strength and mass. It is important that physical therapists educate their patients on consumption of these in addition to physical activity and strength exercises.
It is evident that nutrition plays a major role in most conditions and diagnoses that physical therapists see regularly. Thus, it is appropriate to say that knowledge revolving around nutrition is part of the physical therapy scope of practice.
Physical therapists should always refer a patient to specialists, such as a registered dietitian, for additional support regarding eating factors that fall outside their knowledge or scope of practice.
This article was written by Leyna Antonucci PT, DPT.