Rehab Insights is a weekly blog written by Burke Rehabilitation professionals to offer practical information for patients, families and the community. It's goal is to educate the reader on relevant topics in rehabilitation, general health and wellness.

What You Need to Know about Prehabilitation

July 1, 2014
Karen Pechman, M.D.

PrehabilitationMost of us know the value of rehabilitation following a surgery, such as a joint replacement, and how it restores physical strength and function. What may be less familiar is the concept of rehabilitation prior to surgery, or “prehabilitation,” which is a growing trend in medicine.

Prehabilitation, or pre-hab for short, is an exercise program designed to prepare a person physically and mentally for surgery to optimize the chance for a successful outcome and a quick recovery. It’s well known that the inactivity associated with surgery stresses the body and leads to a decline in physical function. Generally, the more fit and active you are going into surgery the more likely you are to retain a higher level of function after surgery and rehab more quickly. Often, there is a period of waiting involved before a surgery and it’s this time that a person can use to get in the best shape possible.

Benefits of Pre-hab

Studies have shown that people who participate in pre-hab regain full function and get back to their daily activities and sports faster and more easily than people who don’t do pre-hab. Plus, they tend to have less post-operative pain and fewer complications. Participating in pre-hab can even result in a shorter hospital stay.

One of the biggest benefits of a pre-surgical conditioning program is that it enhances the effects of rehabilitation by training muscles in advance for the exercises that an individual will need to do post-operatively. This can help make the exercises more efficient and effective.

Today, prehabilitation is used to prepare for a variety of surgeries and major medical procedures including joint, cardiovascular, lung and colorectal surgeries. One of its newest applications is helping recently-diagnosed cancer patients prepare physically and emotionally for rigorous treatments, thereby reducing the incidence and/or severity of post-therapy impairments.

The practice of pre-hab is especially common in orthopedic surgery for both acute injuries, such as an ACL rupture, and chronic injuries, such as an osteoarthritic knee waiting for replacement. In both cases, the goal is to restore range of motion, strength and function to the joint. However, with acute injuries, the focus is on reducing swelling and retaining mobility while with chronic injuries, the focus is on correcting compensatory movement patterns that contribute to pain and weakness.

Is Pre-hab Right for You?

Most people facing a scheduled surgery can benefit from pre-hab. Normally, a medical doctor will refer a patient to a physical therapist who evaluates the individual for a pre-operative exercise program. Ideally, prehabilitation should be started at least 6 weeks prior to surgery to gain the most benefit.

While it can sometimes be difficult to convince a patient who is awaiting joint surgery—and already experiencing a lot of discomfort—to exercise, a carefully planned, individually-tailored program can actually improve mobility and ease pain. Having a co-existing condition such as cardiovascular disease or multiple joint problems may restrict how much conditioning can be done, but it doesn’t exclude a patient from suitability. Patients who are highly motivated and those who exercise regularly, regardless of their age, tend to be particularly good candidates for pre-hab. However, even the most fragile patients can usually gain improvement from a minimum of occupational therapy and education prior to surgery.

What to Expect from Pre-Hab

Like rehab, pre-hab is an individualized conditioning program designed to increase strength, stamina, range of motion and functional ability. Similarly, it requires a team effort involving the patient, medical doctors and physical and occupational therapists to maximize the benefits.

A typical pre-hab program involves a warm-up, cardiovascular activity, resistance training, flexibility exercises, and practice in the use of walking aides such as crutches and walkers. Education is another key component. Learning what to expect post-operatively in rehabilitation, returning to work and recreational and at-home activities can help a patient prepare psychologically for surgery and ease apprehension. As a result, patients gain confidence and are better able to set realistic post-operative goals.

In today’s economic climate there is a greater push for improved patient outcomes following surgery and shorter hospital stays. Increasingly, prehabilitation is being covered by insurance and HMO plans. However, there’s usually a limit to the number of sessions covered. If your insurance doesn’t cover pre hab, talk to your doctor. Some medical facilities offer pre-hab services as part of their pre-surgery education. If not, your doctor can suggest a program or put you in touch with a qualified physiatrist or physical therapist.

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Burke's Rehab Insights blog is intended to provide general information about rehabilitation and other health care topics. It should not take the place of medical care. Burke staff cannot comment on individual medical cases or give medical advice.

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