For thirty years, Vern Edwards says he abused his knees. “I played competitive squash, and was on the court practically every day, even weekends,” he says. He started noticing problems about a decade ago, but didn’t do anything about it until even the smallest things, like walking without pain, weren’t possible.
“I was really compromised. I made a decision that if I don’t get this looked after, I was going to end up with crutches, a cane or a wheelchair.” So over the course of the past three years, Vern had replacement surgery on both knees at Sunnybrook’s Holland Orthopaedic and Arthritic Centre. Both procedures went well, but the important work of rehabilitation would decide his ultimate level of functioning.
Vern started attending group physiotherapy classes at the Holland Centre, located in a quaint gym space on the building’s basement level. It’s filled with the equipment you would typically expect – parallel bars, tension bands and weights – but in a setting you typically wouldn’t. Instead of one physiotherapist per person, a dozen patients come together to strengthen, stretch and ultimately get back on their feet.
These group physiotherapy classes initially started out of fiscal necessity. With sparse healthcare dollars and a growing number of patients undergoing total knee replacement, it made sense to group patients together, says physical therapist Amy Wainwright. But a new study led by Wainwright now adds to a growing body of evidence that these group classes, lasting 4-6 weeks each – are effective in improving patients’ range of motion, strength and overall functioning. In other words, there appears to be strength in numbers.
Another important benefit to these classes? Patients really like them. While the overall class is done in a group setting, the physiotherapist moves between patients to individualize exercises. There are no wait times to get into the classes. And Wainwright says it’s a huge boost that many past patients volunteer to help out. “That adds a lot to the class and it adds a lot of social support,” she says.
Vern was so grateful for the care he received that he came back in the volunteer role. “Patients are shown in these classes how to do the exercises necessary after surgery,” he says. “And if you do those exercises, you’ll be almost back to full function. I now come back to help others out once a week.” Vern says it’s nice to show others how far they themselves can come if they put in the work.
Today, Vern is very active, walking, biking and doing regular core work. While he’s been advised to avoid playing squash, there’s no harm in teaching it, even from the armchair level.
“I live in a condo and see a young person making some shots and I go down to the court and say, look, you’ve got to bend your knees!” It’s similar advice he helps give during the physio classes, as a fresh group of patients learn how navigate their new joints over foam tubes and blocks. “What this unit is doing is incredibly important,” he says. “It’s great to give back.”