Rehab professionals are all about changing people’s lives for the better.
Ergonomics. It’s a word physical therapists hear often in both professional and educational contexts. But what does it mean? And more importantly, how can PTs use ergonomics in the workplace? How can they apply it in their day-to-day life as a rehab professional?
At its most basic, ergonomics for rehab professionals describes the study and practice of improving well-being and performance through properly designed environments and tools. Ergonomics considers both the physical and psychological interactions of a person with the things around them.
Why are ergonomics in the workplace important?
Rehab professionals are all about changing people’s lives for the better. They’ve taken on the responsibility of positively impacting the lives around them, and their patients rely on them for the best possible treatment.
Understanding and incorporating proper ergonomics in the workplace is critical when it comes to pain management and prevention of injury/re-injury. Educating your patient on ergonomics in the workplace will help them self-manage and understand their injury in a much deeper way, ultimately leading to less pain and lower re-injury rates.
Research has also shown that continuously pursuing proper ergonomics is key in maintaining its positive effects. Staying diligent is vital for success—for both patients and rehab professionals.
Ergonomics for rehab professionals
Physical therapy can be demanding, requiring therapists to be on their feet, lift and support patients, demonstrate exercises, and sometimes maintain awkward and uncomfortable positions during manual therapy.
Being aware of the body’s position and how it interacts with the environment is paramount to preventing injuries. Remember, it’s better to avoid an injury entirely than have to deal with it in the future. Otherwise, therapists may have to deal with disability, leave of work, nerve and musculoskeletal disorders, and more. Luckily, there are many ways that therapists can practice ergonomics throughout the day.
How to apply ergonomics with rehab equipment
Rehab professionals spend a lot of time with many different types of equipment, namely hospital beds and treatment tables. Constantly bending over and moving around those tables can cause irritability and even injury. Setting therapy tables and beds to the right height is an important first step. The general rule of thumb is to:
- Set the therapy table to about hip height; or
- Where the top of the table reaches just below the therapist’s wrists when their arms are down
That said, therapists may need to adjust depending on what they’re doing, what is safe, and what the patient prefers. A comfortable seating arrangement is also important, as an ergonomic chair may reduce back strain. It will also help therapists maintain a comfortable posture during patient documentation and other administrative tasks.
Don’t forget proper lighting! Ensuring the workspace has adequate lighting will help reduce eye strain over time.
Practical ergonomics for rehab professionals
Many physical therapists have a saying: “Your best posture is your next posture.” This adage is relevant to both patients and the therapists who work with them. Here are three practical tips to help incorporate ergonomics for rehab professionals into their daily routine.
- Avoid staying in one position for too long. If staying in one position is necessary, try to maintain a neutral spine to minimize the risk of back and neck pain.
- Wear comfortable and supportive shoes. Changing footwear can help alleviate patients’ pain, and it can work the same way for the therapists who recommend it.
- Taking “activity breaks” will prevent stiffness and keep joints lubricated. Spend a couple minutes multiple times throughout the day to get up and move around.
Tools and devices to help promote proper ergonomics
Ergonomic chairs and comfortable shoes are important but consider incorporating these other tools into the work environment as well.
- Standing desks. These desks put the user at the optimal position when lots of deskwork is required. Plus, the addition of a treadmill below keeps the therapists moving and active.
- Mobilization belts. Using belts for certain manual therapy techniques removes the pressure from the therapist. Mulligan mobilization belts are a good example.
- Lifting belts. These are standard in most hospital settings, but utilizing a lifting belt in the private clinic can help therapists lift, transfer, and support patients in a safer way that is less stressful on the body.
Recommended course: Flexibility, Bands and Balance Strategies for the Healthcare Professional
Integrating ergonomics into patient care
On the patient side, ergonomics often bridges between injury and return-to-work (or daily life). Assess and determine what the patient struggles with at home and at work, as ergonomics play a massive role in how their pain reacts with their environment.
Identifying risk factors and highlighting common ergonomic issues in each patient’s environment can cause a breakthrough in their treatment. It should also directly impact their rehab plan. They should continue moving well outside of the clinic and hospital.
Optimizing patient ergonomics through treatment
Understanding how the patient’s ergonomics affect their healing injury is important in determining what their rehab program should look like. For example, a patient with neck pain may spend most of their day at their desk. Through a subjective and objective examination, it may be beneficial to experiment with movement breaks during work, ergonomic desk and chair setups, and exercises that target the neck, back, and chest.
Patient education on the importance of ergonomics
Patient education is arguably the most important aspect of rehabilitation. It provides the patient with an understanding of their problem, what it means, what the treatment plan is, and eventually how to self-manage.
Stressing the significance of ergonomic awareness can do wonders for a patient’s recovery and their long-term health, and using easy-to-implement suggestions will help them understand and value it. Proper education will also encourage lifestyle modifications, as the patient will be more aware of their ergonomics and will need less support from the therapist.
Ergonomics are important for both rehab professionals and their patients. It can make a big difference in long-term health, patient adherence, and a healthy lifestyle. Properly understanding ergonomics helps the rehab professional perform sustainable rehab practices while helping the patient live a pain-managed life.
This article was written by Eric Richter.