Using Blood Flow Restriction to Maximize Physical Therapy Results
By Rina Ishii, DPT
AzOPT Goodyear Physical Therapist
Blood Flow Restriction (BFR) training is a method of physical training in which you restrict blood flow to a limb or limbs via a tourniquet while exercising or at rest. By restricting blood flow to a specific area, you restrict the amount of oxygen available to your muscles, resulting in a quicker switch to using anaerobic mechanisms to supply energy to your muscles. By doing this, you are creating an environment that mimics what occurs when you perform high intensity training which then can result in hypertrophy (muscle growth) and strengthening.
Why would we use this?
Without using BFR, it takes more load (increased weight or intensity) as well as time to get to anaerobic metabolism becoming the primary source of supplying energy to your muscles. In the physical therapy setting, this can be harder to achieve when patients are unable to tolerate the load or intensity while they are recovering from surgery or injury. BFR allows us to get to this point quicker without requiring a lot of load, which then allows the patient to build strength more efficiently.
What are the benefits?
There are many benefits other than increasing strength and hypertrophy when BFR is used correctly. We can use it to prevent muscle atrophy which is great for pre-surgical, post-surgical, and casted/braced individuals. We can use it to improve aerobic capacity and/or heart health since BFR forces the heart to work harder during training. This would be beneficial for those who are less conditioned. BFR training can also be used for pain control as it can provide analgesic (pain mediating) effects. It is also great for healthy, active individuals and athletes looking to improve strength and conditioning for prepping for competition and achieving fitness goals.
Other benefits include improving circulation, stem cell synthesis, bone density and healing, and brain health.
Is it safe?
First and foremost, BFR training should be performed only under the supervision of a licensed physical therapist. While BFR training is based on restricting blood flow, we do not restrict it at 100%. This allows some blood flow to occur, which makes it safe for the muscle and structures below the tourniquet. When performed correctly, BFR can be safe for most individuals as long as it is not contraindicated (i.e., pregnancy, active cancer, infections, etc.). Please consult your AzOPT licensed physical therapist to discuss if this treatment method is right for you.