Device limits blood flow to help muscles rehabilitate faster

By: Paul Heinert .

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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Blood delivers oxygen, vital nutrients and other life-giving benefits to the body, but researchers are finding that restricting blood flow to muscles during rehabilitation can help them recover from injury or surgery faster.

To do that safely, Sanford Health has started using what’s called blood flow restriction, or BFR.

“BFR tricks the body into thinking that it is lifting something super heavy, so they’re able to activate that metabolic system that helps them build muscle,” said Matt Rollag, a physical therapist at Sanford Health.

During therapy, a physical therapist wraps the BFR system, which is similar to a blood pressure cuff, around the patient’s upper thigh or arm. The cuff is then inflated to slow down blood flow to the lower portion of the leg or arm while the patient performs rehab exercises.

“It’s awesome for post-op surgical patients in the first few weeks when they are not even supposed to be weight-bearing yet,” Rollag said. “They can do some basic exercises to prevent that muscle atrophy.”

Patients recovering from knee injuries, especially ACL tears, make up the majority of people Rollag helps get back on track using BFR therapy. It can help people recover from shoulder injuries, too. Elderly patients suffering from arthritis are also seeing the benefits of using the new “it” therapy.

“They’re able to do a lot lighter loads, but they’re getting the benefit of building strength,” Rollag said.

To get the most out of BFR therapy, physical therapists like to see patients twice a week for at least six weeks, he said. For patients who have had surgery, the rehab process can begin quickly — only one or two weeks after the procedure.

Sanford Health started with one BFR unit last June and quickly found out more would would needed. A second unit was added soon after and Rollag said they could probably use one more. Less than one year into rolling out the new therapy option, roughly half the patients that physical therapists see at the Sanford Fieldhouse in Sioux Falls are using BFR.

“The good thing about (BFR) is this has a lot of good research to back it up, and the science behind it makes sense,” Rollag said.