7 Physical Therapy Exercises You Can Do at Home
Having trouble making it to enough physical therapy appointments and massages to heal your aching muscles? What if you could do many of the same healing exercises you receive in physical therapy with a few household items? The 7 physical therapy exercises below will let you begin decreasing pain and priming the muscles for activity.
Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that the stuff you can get from a quick trip to Target is no replacement for the expertise of a good PT, so if you have a serious issue, by all means, make an appointment today.
To get started, gather these items: a belt, hand towel, golf ball, water bottle, 2 tennis balls, Dixie cup, and a can of soup (or another canned food of similar size).
Self-Myofascial Release Exercises
Self-Myofascial Release (SMR) uses “tools”—most commonly, the foam roller—to decrease pain by breaking up adhesions in the fascia or soft-tissue part of the connective tissue in the body, similar to the way deep tissue massage does, by putting pressure on trigger points that cause the neuromuscular receptors to release muscle tightness.
DUCT TAPED TENNIS BALLS
Tape two tennis balls together and you’ll have the perfect shape for targeted SMR of your IT band and thoracic spine. Lie on your back and place them horizontally along the spine to improve posture and increase mobility along the spinal column. Or place them underneath your lateral thigh and roll from the top of your hip to the knee to relieve pain in your IT band.
A golf ball is the ideal size for SMR of small muscles. For instance, you could roll the golf ball along the arch of your foot, stopping and putting pressure on the tender spots for 30 seconds at a time, to relieve pain from plantar fasciitis and shin splints.
Flexibility Physical Therapy Exercises
Tight calves, hamstrings, and quadriceps are often the underlying culprits of overuse injuries in the lower extremities. They can cause injuries such as patellar tendonitis, IT band syndrome, shin splints, and plantar fasciitis. And a desk job can damage your posture and lead to back and shoulder pain.
There are two great physical therapy exercises you can do with a belt. For the first, lie down on your back. Thread the long end of the belt through the buckle and place the loop around the arch of your foot. Keeping your leg straight and your toes flexed so they point toward you and not the ceiling, pull your leg up toward your head as far as you can. You should feel a deep stretch through your calf and hamstring. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds and repeat twice for each leg.
For the second, stand up and, using a chair for balance, loop the belt around the arch of your foot. Carefully bend your knee behind you, grasp the long end of the belt, and pull it over your shoulder. In this position you can gradually pull your foot closer to your butt, so you can get a deep stretch in your quadriceps. Be careful to keep your knees together while you hold the stretch for 30 seconds. Repeat 2 times for each leg.
To stretch your shoulder’s internal and external rotators, grasp one end of the towel firmly in your hand, raise your arm above your head, and then bend your elbow so the towel hangs behind your back. Then reach behind your back with the other hand to grab the bottom end of the towel. Alternate between gently pulling the bottom hand up your back to stretch your shoulder’s internal rotator and pulling your top hand down your back to stretch your external rotators. You should feel a gradually deepening stretch, but not pain, in your shoulders. Hold each stretch for 30 seconds and repeat before stretching the other side.
For a second stretch, bring the towel behind your back with both hands and lift your arms up off your back as far as you can. Hold this stretch for 10 seconds and repeat twice.
Strengthening weak muscles is the next step after stretching tight muscles. Physical therapy exercises usually focus on strengthening the smaller stabilizing muscles we forget about in the gym. Here are five exercises that you can do using a can and/or a hand towel.
CAN OF SOUP
No lightweight dumbbells? No problem. A can of soup usually weighs about a pound (1 pound = 16 ounces, so take a look at the volume measurement on the can to find one that’s closest to one pound). These “weights” can be used for strengthening the muscles of the foot and the rotator cuff.
THE TOWEL SCRUNCH
To strengthen the muscles of your feet, sit on a chair and lay a hand towel down on the floor just in front of the chair. Place the can of soup at the opposite end of the towel. Now, plant your heel on the ground in front of the towel, grasp the towel with your toes, and scrunch the towel in toward your heel. Repeat until you have scrunched up the entire towel. Repeat this exercise ten times for each foot.
THE WINDSHIELD WIPER
Rotate the towel 90 degrees and place the can of soup at the far end of the towel. Place the heel of your foot on the floor and, like a windshield wiper, move your foot to one side of the towel and grasp it with your toes. Repeat this move in the opposite direction. Repeat the entire length of the towel 5 times in each direction on each foot.
Note: It is easy to “cheat” by letting your hip rotate in and out. Be careful that the movement only occurs at the ankle.
SHOULDER INTERNAL/EXTERNAL ROTATION
To strengthen the tiny muscles of the rotator cuff, lie on your side with the hand towel rolled up and pinned between the elbow of your top arm and the side of your body. Keep your elbow at 90 degrees and, holding the can, rotate your arm toward the ceiling, keeping your elbow on the towel at all times. Lower your arm back down slowly and repeat 10 to 15 times. Next, place the can of soup in your bottom hand. Keep your elbow bent 90 degrees and tucked into the side of your body. Raise the can from the ground toward your abdomen and lower it down slowly.
This third exercise for strengthening the rotator cuff muscles adds stability to the shoulder joint. Lie on your back, grasp the can in your hand, and lift your arm straight up toward the ceiling. Draw the letters of the alphabet in the air as if your thumb was a pencil. This physical therapy exercise challenges all of the muscles of the rotator cuff to activate in random patterns and helps improve and maintain stability. Try this exercise using capital, lowercase, and cursive lettering.
After you’ve finished your strengthening exercises, you want to calm down your muscles and relieve fatigue using cryotherapy (ice). You could use an ice pack, ice bath, or even give yourself an ice massage using a frozen water bottle or Dixie cup. Ice massage combines the benefits of massage (reduced tension and inflammation) and ice (reduced pain and swelling) together in one 10-minute treatment.
Using a similar technique to the golf ball exercise, place the water bottle on the floor with a towel underneath it and gently roll your foot on top of it for up to 10 minutes. This physical therapy exercise is great for tired feet, for decreasing the pain, and for breaking up the chronic inflammation associated with plantar fasciitis. Note: Before freezing a water bottle, make sure it is not filled to the top. Otherwise, it may burst.
Fill a Dixie cup two-thirds full of water and place it in the freezer. When it’s frozen, peel the paper away from the ice. Wrap the base of the ice block in a towel and rub the block along the spot that is causing you pain. You may want to place an additional towel below the treatment area to catch the drips as the ice melts. The shin, IT band, and the patellar tendon are good locations for this type of cryotherapy because the injured tissue is close to the surface. Be careful to start with light pressure and increase pressure as you become numb.
It is also important to keep the ice moving continually to avoid any ice burn. This treatment is very localized and should not be performed for more than 7 to 10 minutes.
**Note: Some people are very sensitive to cold and may have an allergic reaction to ice being placed directly on the skin. This reaction is called Cold Urticaria and these treatments are not recommended for people with this sensitivity. If you aren’t sure if you have this sensitivity, begin with a very small area, and discontinue treatment if you notice any irritation. Also, do NOT apply ice to any area that is already lacking sensation, as it is possible to cause further damage such as frostbite.