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The body at different life stages - Jenny in The Times

Jenny discusses physiotherapy at different life stages with The Irish Times. Full article reproduced below or can be accessed here on The Irish Times Website

Physiotherapy, physiology and physical health throughout the life cycle

At each stage, our bodies have particular needs, which specialists can help us meet 

Tue, Sep 8, 2015, 01:00 

From birth to five years 

From life as a neonate through the early years until school, physiotherapy helps infants and children to achieve their potential, promoting health and wellbeing regardless of ability. Care may be required in the instance of a variety of cardiorespiratory, neuromuscular or musculoskeletal conditions. 

Physiotherapists also play a role in managing congenital abnormalities and in the event of any trauma or injury during childbirth. 

For conditions including prematurity, developmental delay, cerebral palsy and cystic fibrosis, some of our work with infants and small children may be short-term, while in other cases we may work closely and regularly with them and their families. 

Physiotherapy aims to help parents play an active role in their baby’s care including appropriate handling and positioning. Some babies require long hospital stays following birth and often a link with community physiotherapy services can facilitate an early discharge home while providing uninterrupted therapy. 

The physiotherapist will work closely with parents and the medical team to optimise each baby’s outcome, and to provide advice on how best to handle and position them. 

Specialist physiotherapists work in maternity hospitals, developmental clinics, nurseries, schools and homes. 

In many instances, physiotherapists advise on and can adapt toys and equipment so children can function well and participate in life with family and friends. 

Play and age-appropriate activities that promote normal function are an integral part of a child’s development and are regularly incorporated into treatment to make it as enjoyable as possible for the child. 

They also take the form of exercise during the first years of life, essential at this stage as in later childhood to manage the growing epidemic of childhood obesity in our society. It is recommended that young children up to school age have three hours of activity a day, and physiotherapy helps to achieve this. 

Primary-school children 

Starting school is an important stage in the life of a child, and difficulties with movement and physical functioning may become evident at this time. Physiotherapy in paediatrics aims to remove barriers to optimal physical functioning, while promoting health and wellbeing in children, regardless of their ability. 

Our role includes the management of musculoskeletal, neurological and cardio-respiratory disorders in childhood. These might occur following an acute illness or injury, or be linked to conditions such as juvenile arthritis, obesity, cerebral palsy, dyspraxia or chronic pain. 

As movement specialists, physiotherapists will assess and manage strength, function and aerobic fitness in everyday activities by promoting age-appropriate physical activity and functional independence. 

This is as important for the developing child who is healthy but sedentary as it is for those with health conditions such as cystic fibrosis, spina bifida or cancer. 

Children are not just small adults: their bodily systems function differently and they are constantly changing. 

The paediatric physiotherapist will monitor growth and development, assess each child’s strengths and find strategies to facilitate and improve function over a wide range of tasks which are vital for leading a happy and healthy life, for example, learning how to breathe better to improve lung function, how to improve their fitness and play skills so they can participate in everyday activities, or how to cope with and manage chronic pain. 


The years of puberty are a period of transition towards adulthood and further independence. In younger children, physiotherapists work with the child while assisting, educating and empowering parents to support their child’s healthy development and optimal physical functioning. 

In the adolescent years the focus is more on ensuring that the teenager understands what areas they need to work on to manage their overall health as they move into adulthood. This might involve a child with cystic fibrosis gradually gaining independence in their airway-clearance techniques, or a child with a movement disorder taking more responsibility for their muscle stretching/strengthening programme. 

Puberty is also a time of rapid body changes, resulting in biomechanical changes that may cause musculoskeletal conditions or exacerbate existing ones. Physiotherapy plays a vital role in preventing childhood illnesses persisting towards adulthood. 

By promoting physical fitness and optimal functioning, conditions such as osteopaenia, hypermobility, obesity, hypertension, early heart disease or mental-health difficulties can be reduced or prevented. Young adulthood From the age of 18, life changes for the young adult as they move from school into college and the workforce or 

start to travel. Early adulthood also brings the possibility of childbearing and during this phase people start to lay the foundations for their health outcomes in later life. Becoming involved in a wider variety of sporting activity as we age can often lead to musculoskeletal injury, and seeking treatment advice from a chartered physiotherapist within the first 24 hours of a problem arising can make a difference to how you heal. 

Posture can often be a problem for the young adult, with work, study and even smartphone demands causing injury as postures change, and tension and stiffness arise. This affects how daily activities play out on the body, and early assessment is always advised. Don’t walk off an ankle sprain after a kick-about or ignore your backache from last night’s overtime: rest and recovery are as important as training. 

Your chartered physiotherapist will help you take the time to eat well, hydrate and rehabilitate your body after injury. Osteoporosis can become a risk, particularly in underweight people, and taking steps to prevent it during the late teens and 20s is essential. 

Furthermore, maintaining flexibility is important for the long game no matter what activities you take part in. Investing in your strength, flexibility and fitness during this energetic phase can help you pave the way to being healthier in later life. 

Childbearing, professional and family years 

The childbearing years may see different sorts of injury or illness arise for men and women as they navigate daily life. Work-life balance can become challenging and stress can exacerbate old injuries and postural tension. 

A primary risk factor for cardiovascular disease, stress also significantly contributes to the development of atherosclerosis, laying foundations for heart attack and stroke that can lie undetected until the 40s and 50s. Identifying the need for a lifestyle change is a first step towards injury management or illness prevention. 

It is here that a chartered physiotherapist will play an important role in the implementation of a suitable exercise or treatment programme, to reduce your risk, rehabilitate your injury and improve your health. Exercise will help you to reduce stress, lose weight, slow or stop atherosclerosis and improve overall physical fitness. 

Women who become pregnant might seek guidance from a physiotherapist to ensure they conduct appropriate exercise to safely maintain fitness, flexibility and function both before and after birth. Up to 20 per cent of women may experience muscle tension, pelvic floor dysfunction, pelvic-girdle pain or incontinence which can quickly be assessed and treated by your chartered physiotherapist. 

There is no need to struggle to function through pregnancy and the postnatal period. Help is available. 

The 40s 

Ideally the 40s are when things seem to fall into place and life begins to take care of itself. For the average person this time of life sees career, financial and family pressures battling it out with the need to stay fit and well. Sometimes you may need to alter existing exercise routines to ensure you keep fit and injury-free. Talking a physiotherapist through your concerns and goals can ensure you minimise the risk of problems. 

You may even find this decade of life to be the one in which you start to take control of your fitness and, if so, a physiotherapist will help you avoid under- or overtraining, developing niggles or full-blown injuries, or becoming overwhelmed by the task of keeping fit. 

A tailor-made exercise programme can be developed for more specific health problems such as bladder dysfunction (in both men and women), muscle or joint pain associated with weight gain, respiratory diseases such as asthma and various cancers. 

The 50s 

Through our broad scope of training as physiotherapists we know and understand conditions that can limit someone’s ability to keep fit. The 50s are by no means old age but can see the development of certain issues that limit how active you may want to be. 

Arthritis, osteoporosis and muscle wasting can easily be addressed with the help of a chartered physiotherapist. 

Our expertise is used to modify exercise and function, and make it comfortable and safe to continue with, without causing further problems. 

Where serious health matters such as heart attack, osteoporotic fracture or general surgeries have arisen, we can safely lead you into becoming active again, making it an enjoyable process you look forward to continuing over the coming decades. (And if grandchildren come along, you’ll certainly need to keep fit to keep up with them.)


Retirement is the perfect time to reflect on your health and wellbeing. Happy with where you are? If you have been previously physically active, that’s great. If not, now is the time to get started; it’s really never too late. 

We can’t stop the ageing process, but there is a huge amount of evidence to suggest that older adults gain substantial health benefits from regular physical activity, including the reduction and even prevention of common illnesses such as high blood pressure, osteoporosis, arthritis and diabetes, as well as improving balance, mood and mental function. 

Furthermore, the status of certain respiratory conditions such as COPD can be reversed to an extent, and specialist physiotherapists have a role in keeping older adults with these illnesses fit and functioning. If you start a new activity during your retirement phase, a chartered physiotherapist will always advise that you choose a suitable activity that doesn’t put excessive stress on your joints, and that you ease yourself gently into a programme. 

Guiding you through it, the physiotherapist will help you to build up to the recommended guideline of 30 minutes of moderate exercise five times a week, with a much reduced risk of injury. 

For the older adult with a decreased level of participation in normal living due to debilitating conditions such as Parkinson’s disease or stroke, tailored rehabilitation can be provided by specialist physiotherapy services to maximise function and independence. 

Contributors Breda Cunningham, clinical specialist in paediatrics; Anthea Seager, senior paediatric physiotherapist; Grace O’Malley, senior paediatric physiotherapist; Jenny Branigan, sports and musculoskeletal physiotherapist; Maeve Whelan, specialist women’s health physiotherapist; John Beardmore, senior cardiac services physiotherapist; Tara Hannon, senior respiratory physiotherapist; Sinéad Coleman, clinical specialist physiotherapist in gerontology