When a person experiences a serious burn, their life can be turned upside down. While initial treatment is focused on healing the burn itself, it's also important to begin the process of rehabilitation as soon as possible so the patient can regain a sense of normalcy.
As a physical therapist and certified wound care specialist at the Temple Burn Center, I have provided rehabilitation therapies to more than 2,000 people who have experienced serious burns over the last 16 years. Here are some important questions and answers people have about this crucial phase of burn recovery.
What kinds of burns require rehabilitation?
I treat people with all types of burns, including heat (thermal), chemical, and electrical burns. Typically, our patients at the Temple Burn Center have at least second-degree burns, and many have third-degree burns over larger areas of their body. These injuries are deeper and more extensive than minor burns (that can often heal on their own) because they often require skin grafting and surgeries.
When does rehab begin, and how long does it last?
Burn recovery starts almost as soon as you are admitted to the hospital with a serious burn. In fact, we can begin therapies even before you’re able to get out of bed and actively participate in your care.
For example, if a patient is intubated and sedated – meaning they have a tube inserted through their mouth to help them breathe and they’re not actually awake – we can begin assessing or even implementing therapies designed to help them maintain their range of motion. We take a team approach to burn care – everybody has a part to play, and we’re all involved from the very beginning.
As I tell my patients, how long recovery takes varies from person to person. Some people will need burn rehab for a couple of months, while others may need therapies for years.
What happens during burn rehabilitation?
We work on a lot of things with our patients. Early on, many patients need therapies to help prevent conditions called contractures. Contractures occur when tissues such as scars, skin, and even joints, tighten.
After a burn, the skin tries to close as quickly as possible. It tightens from the edges of the burn injury inward about every 20 minutes. Without our interventions, this tightening can lead to contractures, which can restrict normal movement and cause pain.
To help prevent contractures, we use range-of-motion exercises. Generally, these involve stretching an affected area of the body.
Positioning and splinting are other ways to prevent contractures and preserve a patient’s ability to use an affected limb. For instance, imagine not being able to lift your arm above your head. How much would you be able to do in terms of taking care of yourself? Maybe you could brush your teeth, but could you reach up into a cabinet? Positioning and splinting help prevent limbs from being stuck in positions that restrict a patient’s full range of motion.
With these therapies, the goal is to help maintain the patient’s mobility and ability to perform daily activities. We also aim to improve quality of life — for example, by preventing face tightening that can stop people from blinking, smiling, or even eating properly.
We also provide therapies that:
- Minimize scarring, such as with compression garments, stretching and scar massage.
- Support wound healing, including wound bandage changes.
Why is burn rehab important?
I strongly encourage my patients to take an active role in their burn rehab therapies. Stretching an injured limb can be uncomfortable, and in many cases, painful. But participating fully in rehab therapies is necessary for getting the best possible outcome.
I remind my patients that participating in burn rehab can help them maintain their independence and quality of life. The rehab is also important for a person’s social and psychological health. It allows patients to fully participate in the things they want to do, which may include daily living tasks like going to work or school, as well as enjoying their favorite activities with their family and friends.
What other services are available at burn rehab?
Many types of rehab specialists may be involved in the care of burn survivors. At the Temple Burn Center, our team works together to provide whole-person care. In addition to physical therapists, occupational therapists and wound care specialists, we have:
- Dieticians. Good nutrition is essential to helping burns and other wounds heal.
- A psychologist. A mental health expert is available to help survivors manage the emotional effects of their burn injury.
- A monthly support group. I organize a support group at Temple that is held every second Wednesday of the month. Burn patients in the intensive care unit (ICU) can also tune in on phones or tablets, allowing them to participate with burn survivors who are now home and physically recovered.
Why should I attend a burn survivor support group?
In support groups, people who have experienced a burn injury meet other burn survivors who understand what they’re going through. The burn survivor community is relatively small; there aren’t a lot of people who have experienced this type of traumatic injury. Not only do we want to stay connected to our patients once they leave our burn center, but we also hope that they will stay connected to each other. Support groups can provide that connection.
A burn is a life-changing event. Support groups help to show our patients — especially those who have new injuries, who are at their most vulnerable — that they can work through their physical and emotional stress. I’ve seen first-hand that these groups have members who can speak to that experience and show you there is a way to move forward.
I encourage people who have been burned to join our support group meetings. If you would like more information about the Temple Burn Center support group, please look at our events calendar.
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