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Blood Flow Restriction Therapy 101

Muscle weakening after surgery is common, and rebuilding muscle strength postoperatively is often the key focus of rehabilitation programs. Recently, a novel rehab technique has gained interest from patients, surgeons, and therapists looking to more quickly regain muscle strength and size after surgery.

Blood flow restriction (BFR) is a modification to traditional exercise methods such as resistance training or walking. The technique utilizes the application of a blood pressure cuff. A selected pressure is used to block off a vein in the limb, and then the patient performs resistance exercises at approximately 20% to 30% of one repetition maximum. BFR creates an anaerobic environment and at lower oxygen tension levels the body recruits muscle fibers normally reserved for more strenuous exercise. In return the stress on the muscle fibers leads to increased growth of the muscles. BFR has quickly gained interest as an exercise technique and could be a revolutionary tool in the field of rehabilitation medicine to decrease time to return to sport postoperatively. Additionally, BFR training is being used as a supplement to routine resistance training and could result in increased strength and muscle in healthy athletes.

Although early reports are promising, BFR is being studied further in order to determine effectiveness and safety. Current literature suggests that BFR while exercising at lower intensity could be used with subjects after surgery or in populations unable to perform higher levels of exercise with routine resistance training. BFR seems to provide a rehabilitation boost that may have promising influences in the goal to achieve accelerated function after surgery.

However, it is important to remember that serious complications may be possible if BFR technique is not properly followed. Do not attempt BFR training or therapy on your own—only perform BFR therapy under the supervision of a physical therapist that is trained and qualified in BFR techniques.

Overall, the utilization of BFR may provide patients a safe method to begin strength training at earlier stages of rehabilitation. However, further large-scale clinical trials need to be completed in order to obtain a better understanding of physiology, complications, side effects, standardized treatment plans, and long-term patient outcomes.

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