high angle view of physical therapist examining knee while senior male patient sitting on bed

U.P. Physical Therapy Program is Changing Lives

More than 54 million adults are living with chronic inflammation in one or more joints. This painful condition, better known as arthritis, is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. One of the most commonly affected areas are the knees, where severe deterioration (osteoarthritis) can require invasive treatment.

“In the U.S. right now, there are over 600,000 total knee replacements (TKR) performed each year,” explained Steven Elmer, assistant professor, Department of Kinesiology and Integrative Physiology at Michigan Technological University. “That number is on the rise and is projected to reach 3 million by the year 2030.” Although, a TKR helps to reduce pain and improve function, muscle weakness can persist long after surgery.

To combat this issue, Elmer is spearheading a rehabilitation program called B-FREE, which stands for Blood Flow Restriction Exercise Enhancement. While training, participants wear a small blood pressure cuff around the leg, limiting blood flow to and from the working muscles. This causes the easiest, most lightweight exercise to feel more strenuous. The muscles are forced to adapt and work harder, making them bigger and stronger.

The program targets adults between 40 and 75 years old, who’ve had a previous knee joint replacement. “Measurements of leg strength, balance, and walking ability will be taken at the beginning and end of the program,” said Elmer. After the initial consultation, most exercises will be performed at home with the goal of 150 minutes of physical activity per week, as recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine.

With grant funding from the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation, B-FREE supports a small but committed staff consisting of Elmer as team leader, Lydia Lytle, a physical therapist from Aspirus Keweenaw Hospital and graduate students Ben Cockfield (Department of Kinesiology and Integrative Physiology, Michigan Tech), Alicia Den Herder and Alex Kuck (Department of Physical Therapy, Central Michigan University). Den Herder and Kuck are part of Central Michigan’s Houghton-based satellite campus, making this a collaborative effort between both universities.

B-FREE’s main objective is to help people with TKRs regain their physical function. But it’s more than a recovery program. It’s a passion project that hits home for many of those involved. “I’ve had several knee surgeries, some of our students that work in the research laboratory have had sports related knee injuries and surgeries as well,” revealed Elmer. “We can relate a little to some of the recovery challenges adults with a TKR face.”

Since B-FREE is based in the Upper Peninsula, Elmer utilizes multiple outlets to recruit participants—particularly those in rural areas. “Through radio, through newspapers, through relationships with one of our local hospitals, word-of-mouth, giving it to our local fitness clubs and gyms,” said Elmer. Regardless of location, he believes everyone deserves the opportunity to benefit from this revolutionary program.

For more information on B-FREE please contact team members by phone or email:
Ben Cockfield: bacockfi@mtu.edu or (231) 360-6682
Alicia Den Herder: adenherd@mtu.edu or (616) 970-1764)

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Photo credit: Wavebreakmedia

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