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In Fighting Shape 

Physical therapy got an injured boxer back in the ring — and helps millions of people live pain-free lives

click to enlarge Physical therapy helped boxer Jonathan Bertuccelli recover from injury and go on to place in a national championship. - PHOTO BY GREY CROSS
  • photo by grey cross
  • Physical therapy helped boxer Jonathan Bertuccelli recover from injury and go on to place in a national championship.

Boxing coach Jonathan Bertuccelli is no stranger to injury. Taught to box at age six by his father, a prizefighter in Italy, the 46-year-old designer runs his design warehouse-cum-private gym in Mid-City. His boxing ring is tucked amid his works in progress, which include tall statues and half-built floats.

  Bertuccelli is a case study in the school of hard hits. He can rattle off the various injuries he has acquired: broken ribs, a torn meniscus in his left knee, a broken nose or two.

  "Well, I did have a little surgery to get my nose in the middle of my face," he says nonchalantly.

  Broken noses are one thing, but when a 2004 injury popped a tendon in his arm that separated his bicep from the bone, a year-long process of physical therapy was necessary before Bertuccelli could return to the ring.

  "I will say this: The therapy is as important as the surgery," he says. "People need to keep that in mind — just because you have surgery, you're only halfway there."

  October is Physical Therapy Month, a campaign by the American Physical Therapy Association to educate the public on what the country's roughly 200,000 licensed physical therapists are capable of achieving for their patients. This year's focus revolves around sport-related injuries, an ongoing issue in student athletics but something that affects all ages, according to National Physical Therapy Association president Scott Ward.

  "Whether it's Little League or the Masters, participating in sports helps promote physically active lifestyles," Ward writes in a physical therapy newsletter. "Despite the documented health benefits of physical activity (weight management, cardiovascular endurance, improved muscular function, increased self-esteem, etc.), we know the potential for sports-related injuries exists."

  In Bertuccelli's case, his injuries affected him to the point that he could not pick up a pencil. "That was the hardest part ... at that point I couldn't grab a glass of water. I work with my hands; I build for a living. I'm an artist, a craftsman. I was pretty pissed off, but what are you going to do? I just had to go with it.

  "But it came back. That's the beauty of it. It's amazing what the human body can do."

  In July 2004, shortly after the surgery, Bertuccelli began therapy for his arm and the resulting nerve damage in his hand, setting a goal to fight by the next year. He attained that goal in July 2005, placing second in his weight class at the Ringside World Championships in Kansas City, Mo. He now works as a boxing coach for a dozen clients at his Mid-City gym, Rebirth.

click to enlarge Physical therapy can help people ranging from injured athletes to women recovering from childbirth.
  • Physical therapy can help people ranging from injured athletes to women recovering from childbirth.

  With foam rollers, resistance bands, small weights and treadmills scattered about, Magnolia Physical Therapy's (839 Spain St., 943-8026; 5606 Jefferson Hwy., Harahan, 733-0254; www.magnoliatherapyla.com) offices do not appear drastically different from Bertuccelli's gym. This difference is intent. Lisa George, who co-owns the business with Elizabeth Winkler-Schmit, says they want to show what therapists can do beyond post-surgery treatments.

  The clinic consults with patients about their needs and provides a combination of at-home and in-clinic exercises to target substantial injuries or even make simple actions, such as picking up a pencil, pain-free.

  "Our profession is evolving a little bit into the wellness arena and helping people maintain (health) through our knowledge of kinesiology and ... pathology and how that incorporates into someone's life," George says. "Whatever that means for them — how to better help them tackle the stresses and strains of everyday life, and do it in a healthy manner."

  In most circumstances, physical therapists provide an evidence-based formula to patients' injuries: manual therapy (when the therapist looks at the alignment of joints and tendons and determines how best to repair it) and medically supervised exercise to complement the therapy, George says.

  That formula can apply to boxers and amateur athletes, women who have recently given birth, workaholics feeling the strain of desk work, grandparents lifting their grandchildren and people recovering from major surgery.

  George says one of the biggest challenges is proving to patients what kind of results are possible.

  "They have no idea what life would be like without pain until we show them," George says. "Just today, a patient commented that (Magnolia physical therapist) Robin Silverman was ... a magician. So now he has a different perspective. He knows what life can be like without pain, and he knows that is possible."

  Patients interested in physical therapy beyond injury treatment can request a prescription from their doctors, George says. If one-on-one treatment is preferable, they should tell their doctors. She recommends patients ask about their physical therapists' qualifications: Ph.D.s in physical therapy are common, and the most experienced practitioners have an additional manual therapy certification.

  Bertuccelli suggests patients make sure they can trust their physical therapists' judgment. This tactic worked well for him.

  "I started doing my therapy and boxing a year after that surgery," Bertuccelli says. "By the third round (of the championship), I was making a comeback. I was rallying but didn't have enough time to score. The guy just out-hustled me. But I was very happy."

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