Keeping soldiers fit for duty

ARMY PUBLIC AFFAIRS  –  Oct 14, 2016

Canadian Army (CA) Physiotherapy Officer Captain Carole-Anne Dufour’s career began at Canadian Forces Health Services Centre Ottawa, where many of her patients were nearing the end of theirs.

“Ottawa is a little bit different because it’s less physically active and the majority of personnel are more towards the end of their careers,” she explained. “So Ottawa members develop things that are more what we would call degenerative conditions or repetitive stress injuries, such as tennis elbow from not using a mouse properly, or neck strains from having the neck turned all the time to hold the phone. Long-term military careers can also result in diseases like low back pain or knee problems.”

Such cases, she explained, are actually more complex and challenging than many of those she sees at her current posting: Area Support Unit Saint-Jean in Quebec.

“Saint-Jean is a lot of either privates or officer cadets,” she said. “Not fully-trained people. And their training is much higher tempo than what they’re often used to so there’s a lot of those acute injuries or they’re just not used to doing that amount of physical activity so they get strains and sprains.”

The Physio Officer trade comes with many and varied challenges, said Capt Dufour, which is one of the things she likes most about it.

“You never sit at a desk for long hours. You need to go get your patient from the clinic and then you teach them exercise. You’re down on the floor, you’re standing. You’re always up and moving, which I love about my job.”

Demand for Physio Officers in the Armed Forces is high and one reason for that, Capt Dufour explained, is that they not only treat injuries but are also working to prevent them.

“In Ottawa people really do develop injuries from not working in proper position for hours and hours, day after day,” she explained. “That’s more due to repetitive strain. Something to prevent these is to try to have your work station set up as best you can. They can come see us and get help with setting up a work station properly.”

Prevention of injuries that tend to occur with operational duties, like those seen in St-Jean, is quite a different matter.

“They need to develop and maintain a really high level of fitness and if they have to stop for an injury then they need to progress slowly back into it,” she said. “I find the military mind says, ‘No pain, no gain’ and you just go back and you suck it up but you can’t always get away with it. People who aren’t runners are required to run a 10K all of a sudden and then they develop an injury from it. So if they know they have to run a 10K and they’re not runners they should start building that up months in advance. Physios can help with proper exercise techniques.”

Hailing from the central Quebec community of Victoriaville, Capt Dufour knew from a young age that she wanted to be a healthcare practitioner. It was through family that she decided the military might be the place to do it.

“My aunt and uncle spoke really highly of the Armed Forces. They loved the esprit de corps and the cohesion between the troops. They said I was fit and had the right personality. They loved their careers and they never regretted it. They were right. I love it too.”

As members of the Canadian Forces Health Services team, Military physiotherapists are highly trained to assess and treat injuries that involve muscles, joints, ligaments, tendons and other soft tissues of the body, including neck and back conditions. Their main objectives are to return injured solders to full duty and operational readiness. They also provide advice and guidance in:

Worksite assessments and industrial ergonomics;
Injury prevention;
Health promotion;
Sports injury education;
Pre-deployment education; and
Reconditioning programs.
After completing a Bachelor’s degree in physiotherapy at McGill University in Montreal, Capt Dufour joined the Canadian Armed Forces and received full funding for her Master Degree studies through the Regular Officer Training Plan (ROTP). St-Jean will be her second posting since her graduation in October 2013.

Maintaining a skillset and keeping up with new technology and methodology are key for physiotherapists and Capt Dufour said learning is a constant necessity.

“We enhance our clinical expertise with advanced courses offered either through the Canadian Physiotherapy Association or others, like the American Association. There are numerous courses that are offered in a wide variety of specialty areas. In the military we’re also getting into traumatic brain injury training. We are getting more members with concussions and there’s a lot physio can do for people with concussions although it’s not yet widely known.”

Adaptability to change is a key trait for successful military physios, Capt Dufour added, as is a tolerance for paperwork.

Among the many rewards, she adds, is a strong sense of connection to our patients.

 “I love the contact you have with patients,” she said. “You get to know your patients very well. You want to maximize what you give them, so you always need to reassess treatment plans that don’t work and make critical decisions all the time. So it’s a very high demand job for your brain as well and I love that. We often have to work under the pressure of time constraints and have to be able to efficiently assess every patient and determine how we can best help them back to full duty.  That is exactly why we exist in the military and why I joined.”