woman in blood flow restriction therapy with physical therapist

Blood flow restriction therapy (BFR) enables individuals to increase their muscle mass and strength while performing a low-intensity exercise. During exercise, a cuff or strap temporarily reduces blood flow to a muscle or muscle group, decreasing oxygen flow which forces the muscle to work harder. Results are comparable to strength gains achieved by high-intensity training.

Also known as blood flow restriction training, BFR therapy is popular in both gyms and clinical settings and is safe for most people. It is advantageous in cases where high-intensity training is not appropriate, such as after an injury or surgery. BFR may also be a good fit for patients with chronic pain, chronic conditions like diabetes, or difficulty with walking and balance. The therapy is also effective for healthy people.

A study recently published in the Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons found that “evidence is promising for the application of BFR in athletes, rehabilitation patients, and the elderly.”

MOTION physical therapist Anthony Sacramento PT, DPT, is skilled in BFR therapy and has seen significant results in his clients. Watch our short video as Dr. Sacramento describes BFR therapy in a nutshell. He explains that by safely restricting blood flow during a person’s workout, they can increase strength and muscle mass without lifting heavy weights.

How Does BFR Work?

A physical therapist or other trained health professional applies a specialized blood pressure cuff or strap to the patient’s upper or lower extremity, close to the point where the muscle attaches to the torso. Once the therapist inflates the cuff to the pressure necessary to restrict blood flow safely, the patient performs low-intensity resistance exercises alternating with short rest intervals as directed by their physical therapist.

When a person exercises at a high intensity, two processes occur that scientists believe increase muscle strength:

  • Hypertrophy, or the enlargement of muscle mass
  • Neural adaptations that strengthen the nerve-muscle connection and improve the use of oxygen in the blood

Studies find BFR therapy triggers the same processes during low-intensity exercise as are triggered by high-intensity training. In both cases, stress creates a physiological response that causes the body to repair itself and build muscle mass.

In fact, one study compared four exercise groups:

  • High intensity
  • Low intensity
  • BFR with a combination of low intensity and high intensity
  • BFR with low intensity only

After six weeks, the high intensity and two BFR groups attained the most significant increase in muscle size. Both groups achieved comparable results.

BFR therapy is an excellent physical therapy modality, allowing patients to complete prescribed exercises in less time using light weights or no weights at all.

BFR Treats a Variety of Conditions

While athletes and other healthy people can benefit from BFR, the therapy is especially beneficial for those unable to perform high-intensity training. Many individuals who experience muscle weakness after surgery, illness, or injury or those with conditions that make high-intensity training difficult or impossible can safely strengthen their muscles through BFR therapy.

BFR therapy is also effective for the following conditions:

  • Chronic pain
  • Arthritis
  • Tendonitis
  • Diabetes
  • COPD
  • Muscle strains

BFR therapy is beneficial for almost any condition that results in muscle weakness. Benefits of blood flow restriction therapy may include:

  • Faster healing
  • Reversal of muscle atrophy
  • Less discomfort due to lighter weights
  • Increase in bone density
  • Improved muscular and cardiovascular endurance

Is BFR Therapy Safe?

Studies, including a meta-analysis of several different studies, find BFR therapy is safe and effective for most adults if done correctly. Researchers also conclude that BFR training benefits older adults by helping them gain muscle mass and strength safely as they exercise at a low intensity.

Before starting BFR therapy or any exercise program, always check with your health care provider first. BFR therapy may not be advisable for people with certain health conditions.

Side effects are usually minimal but can include dizziness or fainting, tingling or numbness in the extremity, and muscle pain or soreness.

The best way to recognize contraindications and avoid adverse side effects of BFR therapy is to work with a physical therapist that is knowledgeable and experienced in providing BFR therapy. Our skilled MOTION physical therapists have the training and experience necessary to ensure BFR therapy is the best approach for their clients.

What Can You Expect During a BFR Session?

During your first visit with your MOTION physical therapist, we will gather the information we need to ensure BFR therapy is appropriate for your condition.

After conducting a physical exam, reviewing your medical history and doctor’s input, and determining your goals, we will develop a customized treatment plan. We encourage you to ask questions and provide feedback throughout this and every visit.

How do sessions typically work?

Your MOTION physical therapist will apply a blood flow restriction band or cuff that uses the minimal amount of pressure necessary to get results. You may choose to not use any weights when you begin your program, or you may use light weights, allowing you to get the best results without stressing underlying muscles or tissue.

Although the amount of weight you use, the number of repetitions, and the number of rest intervals may vary for each person, a typical session lasts 20 to 30 minutes. Your MOTION physical therapist will supervise your session, directing you in the number of repetitions and sets, as well as timing your rest breaks with the band or cuff still tightened and your rest breaks with the band or cuff loosened.

Depending on your needs, your PT may also combine electrical stimulation or other modalities with your BFR therapy sessions.

You will achieve the most significant results by attending clinic sessions two to four times a week for several weeks. While we do not want you performing BFR therapy at home, we will provide you with a home exercise program to help you stay strong and healthy long-term.

Whether you are recovering from surgery or an injury, are an older adult, or have a condition that makes heavier weights or high-intensity workouts inappropriate for you, BFR therapy can get you the results you seek.

When done properly, BFR can help most people:

  • Improve strength using little or no weight, at a rate comparable to a high-intensity workout
  • Avoid stressing injured muscle or tissue using light weights or no weights at all
  • Build strength after a joint replacement or other surgery
  • Return more quickly to a favorite sport or activity

Why Consider MOTION for BFR Therapy?

Since 2015, MOTION has provided transformative physical and occupational therapy services to clients of all ages. Our physical therapists are among the most highly trained in the business and work together seamlessly to provide you with the results you deserve.

MOTION proudly offers state-of-the-art facilities and professional-grade equipment. We respect our clients and take a personal interest in their recovery. The MOTION team provides a fun yet professional environment, striving to get you back to what moves you as quickly as possible. We want you to enjoy the experience!

In the words of our valued client Pat Prescott, “the personalized component of calling clients by name, knowing their individual circumstances, relating to them in terms they can understand, and trying to adjust appointment schedules are examples of the client-friendly practices at MOTION.”

We have seen clients achieve remarkable results with BFR therapy. MOTION physical therapists like Dr. Anthony Sacramento have the knowledge and experience to identify BFR therapy as the right treatment path or choose another approach for you.

Contact MOTION today to learn more about BFR therapy and other services we provide.