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Treating Contractures in the Elderly

Treating Contractures in the Elderly By Purnananda Kar

Contracture is one of the most common problems I have experienced through my clinical practice in the last few years.

Contractures occur in different age groups and in people with different medical problems. Lots of money is spent every year, directly or indirectly, due to the effect of contractures that are overlooked by practitioners, family and caregivers. The problem is not completely ignored, but there is room to do a better job.

lady wheelchair

As an OT, I believe this is one of the very significant areas where we can take charge. We can make patients' lives better and save some dollars.

What I have found after years of practice is that the contractures in the elderly occur for two basic reasons:

* as a result of surgical problems--traumatic, neurological, orthopedic, miscellaneous

* from inadequate intervention--therapeutic approach, surgical approach

Common Causes

The most common causes are neurologic or orthopedic-related problems.

In orthopedics, the problem might rest in bone, cartilage, muscles, tendons, ligaments, or soft tissue. The most common neurological conditions which result in contractures are CVA, MS, Parkinsonism, paraplegia, UMN and PPRP. However, most of the conditions stem from combination of both, coupled with poor management of the specific problem.

We know that this problem does not develop overnight.

Without going into the physiology and pathomechanics of contractures, I would like to touch upon the best possible remedies for contractures in geriatric patients, from my perspective.

The common sites of contractures in the elderly, from most frequent to least, are hands and digits, shoulder, knee, elbow, foot, wrist, hip and spine. Is there any reason why the hand is the most often afflicted area? It is one of the most used parts of the body. It also performs the most fine-motor movements, which require the involvement of many small muscles. And there are other biomechanical principles that apply.

When it comes to contracture management, whether hand or knee, the OT should take charge, because either directly or indirectly, the contracture hinders functional activity. This is absolutely within the domain of occupational therapy.

In the elderly, conservative methods of treatment are the best choice, although sometimes surgical treatment is recommended. Medical treatment is required when the contracture is acute onset, or to reduce pain, spasms, spasticity or muscle guarding. It also may be needed to facilitate physical treatment

Physical treatment includes physical-agent modalities including electrical stimulation, pulsed short-wave diathermy, ultrasound, paraffin bath, whirlpool, hot and cold pack, etc; therapeutic intervention (exercises, stretching, mobilization, manipulation, etc.); and orthotic management (design, fabrication of splints, orthosis, and support devices).

Problem Situations

Often, OT clinicians have problems in identifying a particular patient who is having a contracture or has a risk of it. Bed positioning can eventually lead to contractures. The team, which can include many other professionals who do not necessarily have the expertise that OTs have in diagnosing contractures, may not observe them closely.

Some OT clinicians may not have expertise in using orthoses. After all, you can't have expertise in everything. And an expert clinician's skill is wasted if he or she does not have supplies for a particular orthosis. Sometimes, clinicians face problems in reimbursement for contracture management, which creates a barrier to providing appropriate service in time.

Clinicians who do use contracture management techniques can experience problems when there is a lack of feedback from other team members or follow-up from nursing. The family may not want to give consent because they do not understand why treatment is necessary.

Finding Solutions

So let's talk about some easy, cost-effective solutions to the above-mentioned problems.

Identifying the appropriate case for splinting is not difficult if you target the patient's decline in function. Trace it to either the upper or lower body, then isolate the individual component of each limb and the trunk. Find the underlying cause, and identify the contracture risk as immediate, intermediate or long-term. Find out what kind of support the patient needs, and then you will be able to recommend the appropriate splint. Make sure, however, that you always consider function, so that the patient can keep as much function as possible without damaging joint and skin integrity.

Lack of team approach in this particular area is very common in most cases. The problem seems small in the beginning. It becomes serious in later stages, however, and it is the OT's duty to educate the other professionals periodically. You also may want to develop a questionnaire for contracture assessment, possibly facility-specific.

Check with the other professionals periodically, get their feedback, and make the necessary changes.

Lack of funding will not be an issue if the OT clinician can find a low-cost method of treatment and show other professionals and the patient's family. In my experience, this approach works most of the time.

If you are not adequately competent in splinting for contractures, take the initiative to learn more through continuing education courses and from other experienced professionals. Keep your knowledge updated.

In many places, clinicians do not get enough materials to take care of splinting. I encourage you to go through your catalogs.

Find the lowest-cost materials that will be effective, and make sure it is convenient and can be fitted easily.

Feedback is a big issue. If follow-through after the splint is fitted is not carried out properly, the problem can get worse and/or the patient loses the splint. This results in more frustration, and also makes it difficult to charge the same patient again and again for other splints. This problem can be solved by working closely together. Take your problems to the team and work out a plan.

Educate the patient and family about contracture risk, cause and cost, and about the long-term benefits of treatment.

Purnananda Kar, OTR/L, is employed by Sundance Rehab at Four Seasons N.C. in Durant, OK.


Does anyone know a remedy for the smell in a contracted hand?

Thank you

Cheryl Hunter,  COTAAugust 12, 2016
Texarkana, TX

I have a patient with contracture in hand that resulted from OA. We have tried all kinds of splints which work for awhile. But now contracture is worsening and on top of that, the woman has stage 3 wound in 3rd finger which is hard to treat due to automatic muscle guarding of entire hand when touched. Do you electrical stimulation will work or Botox?

Pureza Budd,  OTR,  SNFJune 02, 2016
Worcester, MA

My husband is suffering from Guillian Barre Syndrome. He is now in the 5th week of treatment at Glengariff in Glen Cove New York. His hands and feet were affected. His hands are getting better, but he still cannot stand or walk. His right foot is swollen and painful. He might be suffering from contracture in that foot. He is 89 years old but very healthy and his mind is excellent. Please comment on how we can determine if he has a contracture of the right foot and what would be the treatment to alleviate his pain. Thank you so much for your help…….Barbara Genoese

Barbara Genoese,  wife of patient,  Glengariff HealthAugust 15, 2015
Breezy Point, NY

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