Physical Therapists Expanding Their Scope


ST. LOUIS — Long thought of as solely treating patients recovering from illness or injury, physical therapists across the United States and their governing body, the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), are placing a greater emphasis on health and wellness. Maryville University’s Physical Therapy program has recognized this trend and is including in its course content more information on preventive health issues, including obesity, which the APTA is spotlighting during October, which is National Physical Therapy Month.

“Obesity has become an epidemic; it is vitally important that we treat this serious concern” said Jack Bennett, assistant professor of physical therapy at Maryville. “There are so many ramifications for obesity. It may influence the development of heart conditions, diabetes or strokes. It may also affect psychological and sociological issues.” Bennett, who teaches several courses including Nutrition and Exercise Physiology, says rising health care costs are making it crucial for current and future physical therapists to think proactively on how to stem the rising tide of obesity.

According to a study conducted in January 2004 by American Sports Data, Inc., 3.8 million Americans weigh more than 300 pounds. The average adult woman weighs 163 pounds and 400,000 Americans, mostly men, weigh more than 400 pounds. The study cites statistics from the Center for Disease Control, which show that 63 percent of adult Americans have a Body Mass Index greater than 25.0 and are therefore classified as overweight. Research shows that childhood obesity has more than tripled over the past two decades and the U.S. Surgeon General has declared that obesity is responsible for 300,000 deaths annually.

Bennett, an APTA board-certified sports specialist, said physical therapists are uniquely qualified to assist patients in adopting exercise regimens that can aid in losing weight and maintaining weight loss. “We are specialists at movement,” he remarked. “We can teach them how to exercise and exercise safely. It’s not just about going to the gym and lifting weights.” He added that physical therapists treat many conditions, including neck and back pain, that are exacerbated by obesity.

Along those lines, Bennett said he envisions Maryville physical therapy faculty and students collaborating with dieticians, nutritionists and other healthcare professionals to offer classes on how to stay healthy and prevent obesity. “This would be a prime opportunity to treat these issues,” he commented. Because there are societal stigmas attached to obesity, he continued, obese persons are often reluctant to participate in studies because they would have to admit their conditions to others and themselves. Hence, another reason for the importance of wellness education. “I think there’s also gender bias toward (obese) women,” Bennett said.

As part of its monthlong observance of National Physical Therapy Month, Maryville University is hosting the fall conference of the Missouri Physical Therapy Association from Friday, Oct. 12, through Sunday, Oct. 14. Physical therapists from across the state will participate in several courses, including a course on spinal manipulation to be taught by Michael Cibulka, DPT, assistant professor of physical therapy at Maryville University. Other course topics will include differential diagnosis and cancer screening, wound care and motor control.

Maryville University, founded in 1872, is a private, coeducational institution offering approximately 50 undergraduate, seven master’s and two doctoral degree programs to 3,422 students. Ranked by U.S. News and World Report as one of America’s Best Colleges in the Midwest, Maryville University prepares its students for successful and meaningful careers by offering programs that integrate liberal arts with professional studies.

Among Maryville’s most recent graduates, 94 percent are employed or attending graduate school. Approximately 15,000 alumni work and live in the St. Louis region.