News & Info

Talk Turkey to Improve Physical Therapy

Elderly father adult son and grandson out for a walk in the park.

November is a time to eat and talk turkey — especially about family health. Every year, National Family Health History Day occurs on the same day as Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving may have already passed, but it’s never too late to start the conversation.

Conversations about any family history of diseases and health conditions are important for a person’s health and well-being. By understanding inherited risk, individuals can plan and manage healthcare — including physical therapy!

Physical therapists treat many conditions and impairments that are linked to genetics, such as stroke, arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. We know genes can highlight the risk of getting a disease, but they also inform on how that disease might progress, the likely outcomes, and what rehabilitation could look like.

Research has shown that “outcomes movement,” like those used in physical therapy, are related to genetic make-up. For example, 64% of a person’s lumbar flexibility (range of motion) is determined by how other family members can move. Balance, or postural sway, is also influenced by genetics, with 35% being similar to that of relatives. In fact, one study that examined muscle strength, endurance, and power concluded, “The results suggest that familial, and perhaps genetic, factors are important in explaining the variance in musculoskeletal fitness not only cross-sectionally but also for changes over time.”

Because physical therapy is built uniquely for each patient, that person’s family health history is critical. Physical therapists evaluate a person’s movement, flexibility, muscle and joint motion, and performance in the moment. But knowing how other family members experienced a condition or disease may inform the healthcare plan including short- and long-term goals, determining which treatments or interventions are probably going to be effective, and suggesting ways to self-manage as the condition or disease changes.

Here are five questions to discuss with your family that may be useful for your physical therapist:

  1. Are people in the family able to move easily as they grow older? Are they active?
  2. Does anyone in the family have back pain? How did they get it? What do they do to treat it?
  3. Is there any family history of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, or Parkinson’s?
  4. Has anyone had any other serious diseases, such as cancer, osteoporosis, or stroke?
  5. If family members had a disease, how old were they when they were diagnosed? How did the disease progress over time?

Don’t forget to also ask your physical therapist if there is any other family health information that might be helpful to your treatment and care.

Knowing and acting on your family’s health history can help your medical care; physical therapy is an essential component of health care.

Sources: CDC; APTA; Journal of Applied Physiology; National Library of Medicine