How Therapy Can Help You Recover from an Organ Transplant
As if major surgery weren’t enough to recover from, people who have organ transplants often experience some reduction in their strength, endurance and body function long before surgery due to their organ failure. This can mean they’ll have a bit longer journey to get back to feeling like themselves afterward.
Following a transplant, patients may have mobility challenges or restrictions from their doctors on what they can do physically, like how much they can safely lift or what kinds of exercise they can perform. Activity restrictions like these can last for 6-10 weeks.
In the long term, transplant survivors are also typically on medications like immunosuppressants to prevent organ rejection. While these drugs are vital to the safety of post-transplant patients, they’re also associated with muscle weakness, diabetes and bone disorders like osteoporosis.
Taking all of this into consideration may seem overwhelming. The good news is that rehabilitation services like physical and occupational therapy can help – not only afterward, but throughout the organ transplant process.
Prior to surgery, you might consider “prehab,” which is a therapy program to help you make changes to behavior and lifestyle. These changes can improve your overall wellness and support your body's ability to handle the stress of surgery. In a prehabilitation program, your therapy team will work with you to improve cardio conditioning, strength and endurance to help prep your body for surgery and recovery.
Immediately following surgery, while you’re still in recovery at the hospital, you may need assistance with getting in and out bed, walking and beginning self-care tasks like getting dressed. Occupational therapists will work with you to help you learn to do these daily tasks safely while you recover. They may also recommend assistive devices (like a cane or a tool for reaching) or additional rehab services to help you once you leave the hospital.
After transplant and beyond
Once you’re home, you may still need help getting back to moving and functioning comfortably. In this case, you can continue your rehabilitation plan in an outpatient therapy setting and even practice what you learn at home. No matter what you’re struggling with post-transplant, therapy can help. Here’s some background on what you can expect from each type of therapy:
- Occupational therapy: Occupational therapists focus on helping people regain independence with everyday activities like dressing, bathing, doing laundry or going to the store. They also help improve issues with fine motor control, upper body strength and range of motion. Another important skill of occupational therapy is energy conservation. Mastering this technique can help you accomplish your most important daily tasks when your body is the most capable.
- Physical therapy: Physical therapists focus on improving strength, walking, endurance and balance. These things are sometimes called gross motor skills. If you’re up for it and you’ve been cleared by your doctor, physical therapy can also help you return to your favorite exercise routine after your transplant. Your therapist can also help prevent and treat some of the side effects related to long-term steroid use, like muscle weakness.
- Speech therapy: Though speech therapy could be beneficial to anyone having an organ transplant, is most common following a lung or heart transplant. People with lung and heart transplants are more at risk for aspiration, which is what happens when saliva, food, drink or stomach contents enter the airway, voice box or lungs. If untreated, aspiration can lead to pneumonia and other complications. Speech therapists can assess any issues with swallowing and your risk of aspiration. They can also work with you to improve voice production and language recall if your surgery also led to communication difficulties.
Learn more about adding rehab into your personalized plan of care with Ochsner Therapy & Wellness.