Local osteopath Dr. Chris Doerr is a proponent of healing through physical therapy. Surgery, he says, should be the last option.
Fifteen years ago, Dr. Eugene McCarthy, a retired UGA geneticist, had excruciating lower back pain from an old sports injury. He had been advised to have surgery to fuse two vertebrae by screwing them together with a metal bracket.
“That sounded like a definite ouch,” McCarthy says. He had heard Dr. Chris Doerr helped many people with back and neck injuries without surgery, so before going under the knife, he decided to give him a try.
“After a thorough examination, he set me up with a physical therapy program that largely eliminated my problem. Then he prescribed an individual exercise regime that I’ve continued to the present day. Amazingly, it’s kept my back problems at bay ever since.”
Dr. Doerr moved to Athens from Ohio in 1991 to work as an emergency physician at what is now Piedmont Athens Regional. Because of his training—a master’s in exercise physiology and a degree in Osteopathic Medicine—he originally envisioned himself as a small-town family doctor who preached the benefits of exercise in healing a multitude of ills. By 1999, he was able to fulfill that dream when he left ER medicine behind and opened a small spine rehabilitation clinic in the basement of the round Walgreen’s building on Prince Ave. The practice thrived, becoming a full-service physical therapy clinic (Athens Physical Therapy), and moving to a larger space. And then an even larger place.
“In the world of bones, joints, muscles and pinched nerves, there are just three things you can do: therapies, injections/medications, and surgeries,” Doerr says. “For people hoping to avoid injections or surgery, they will need to invest themselves in the therapy chosen, and if it is not ultimately helpful—or is helpful only to a point—they may need another therapy approach. Another way of looking at this is ‘surgery should be earned’ by failing good therapy and even injections.”
“If I have a pet peeve, it’s that some people don’t give therapy enough of a chance to see results. If they have gotten ‘stronger but not better’ it is our duty to help determine the next step—modify the therapy, acquire imaging studies, get the insights of another physician—this is not a ‘turf battle.’ Our job is to help the patient get to the bottom of a problem.”
The aging body
Many of Doerr’s patients are dealing with severe pain and the inevitable physical decline of age. Some have hurt themselves because they simply kept doing the things they did when they were younger, whether lifting heavy objects or climbing ladders that result in a fall.
“Our body mechanics and aging catch up with all of us at one time or another,” Doerr says. “Lifting something too heavy or exercising with poor form seem to be the greatest risk factors for acute injuries. When we’re younger, our muscles aren’t as strong as our bones but as we age our muscles are stronger than the bones. This is a transition that happens to all of us.
“Unfortunately, the older we get, there is more day-to-day management and less cure. As therapists, we feel we are not done unless we have taught our patients the dos and don’ts of activities and their proper mechanics, as well as a home exercise program to maintain their status.”
When patients are first referred to Doerr, they meet with him in his office and go over a detailed history and exam, and review any prior MRIs, x-rays and bone density tests together.
“It is important that people understand their condition, not just take my word for it,” Doerr says. Once a plan is determined, patients set up a schedule with a certified therapist and begin working out.
“I am a true believer in the basis of physical therapy—and the other facilitating arts such as massage therapy, chiropractic, acupuncture, and the disciplines of Yoga, Pilates, traditional Chinese and naturopathic medicine,” Doerr says.
“We are in the helping profession,” Doerr says. “We are body, mind and spirit. In my osteopathic training, we learned the role of the physician: We are not the healer, but we are facilitators of healing.”
Doerr recommends walking for seniors without arthritic knees and hips. For those with such mobility issues, he recommends a stationary bike or recumbent bike at home. He also says a good diet is important because obesity can harm the knees, hips and spine among other health risks.
Medical insurance policies typically limit the number of formal visits with a therapist so the practice operates an “RxGym” membership gym adjacent to the physical therapy area where therapy “graduates” and others can work out in a carefully cleaned environment with routines designed by their therapists.
“Because people kept asking, ‘what do I do now that I feel better from therapy?’ we started the RxGym to provide specially chosen equipment to help former patients maintain their gains, avoid injuring themselves, and continue their therapeutic exercise independently,” Doerr says.
The Better Bone Clinic
As the base of his patients broadened, Doerr began seeing more and more people with osteoporosis, which led him to form the “Better Bone Clinic” five years ago, held on Fridays.
“There are things you can do for osteoporosis now that one couldn’t do in years past and it’s thrilling to be able to help,” he says. “Many people get a diagnosis of osteoporosis and say, ‘That’s the end of my life!’ And a sobering statistic is that 33 percent of adults who break a hip after age 50 will be dead within 12 months due to complications.
“There are good medicines to consider and some ‘musts’ in the nutritional world like Vitamin D, calcium and Vitamin K2. We check labs on all our osteoporosis patients to rule out secondary causes like chronic kidney disease, celiac disease, parathyroid tumors and so on. Treating osteoporosis requires surveillance and thoughtful choices regarding treatment. Many people want to treat their osteoporosis naturally, but if the development of osteoporosis is because of their genetics, ethnicity or family history—and all else is normal—they may very well require medication to offset the progression. There is a lot of misinformation out there, and a lot of fear. I reassure people this is a collaborative process, and I promise to give good information to help them make an informed decision.”
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