Dec 27, 2023

Physical therapist tailors program to help first responders

Physical therapist Chris Kolba instructs Police Sgt. Joseph Riddle on a drill that mimics climbing over a fence. By replicating scenarios that first responders commonly face, a new program at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center is helping them physically and mentally prepare for the demands of their jobs. Credit: The Ohio State University

The work of first responders is unlike most careers, and thanks to the help of some at Ohio State, they now have their own unique physical therapy regimen to get back in the field.

Chris Kolba, a physical therapist on the Ohio State sports medicine team, started Ohio State's Tactical Rehab and Conditioning program and said it gave him a deeper understanding of the specific help first responders require to get back on the force as quickly as possible. Since the jobs are quite different from the typical 9 to 5, Kolba said he's added some training not often used in physical therapy sessions.

"They have to deal with people who are not cooperative, so I started incorporating some of the advanced strength training," Kolba said. "Kind of the combat, martial art, wrestling type stuff in there."

Through the use of advanced strength training in physical therapy, Kolba built a reputation that allowed him to create the tactical rehab and performance program used today.

"I started the tactical rehab and performance program and started to market what we did in terms of our style or brand of physical therapy that really directly related to getting them back to doing specifically what they needed to do," Kolba said.

The program has since grown, working with multiple law enforcement agencies. Kolba said the process begins with the initial stages of recovery, and then moves to more advanced movements and training that puts first responders in a position to maximize their strengths after an injury.

"We start to incorporate wrestling, rolling, being able to block and even throw punches," Kolba said. "Making sure that their body, whatever that area we are working on, can tolerate those stresses, that when they go back to work, they are pretty close to 100 percent."

Joseph Riddle, a sergeant for the Columbus Division of Police, said endurance plays a significant role in physical therapy approaches because it is difficult to do first responder work if the body is not prepared.

"Endurance is a big one because you may have one thing done and as soon as you turn around something else pops up and you have to reactivate," Riddle said. "If you do not have the level of fitness — whether it be the mental confidence, the physical confidence or the performance-based stuff — you are going to have a hard time."

It is important that first responders’ bodies are ready to take on the physical, advanced work that their job requires on a daily basis, Riddle said.

"A lot of grabbing, a lot of pushing, pulling. A lot of things that you would do that were generally not statically standing still," Riddle said. "The body is moving in some way whether you are stepping, reversing, twisting."

Riddle said the tactical rehab and performance program is helpful for all first responders — injured or not — to identify areas for improvement.

"For people who are healthy and don't think they need assistance, it may benefit them to see someone in this type of work and say, ‘Hey, what are my weaknesses? Can you help me find some? What do you think I can do to improve my workouts? What do you think I can do to improve my training?’" Kolba said.

The program aims to help all law enforcement workers maintain their skills and well-being but focuses on getting officers back where they once were, pre-injury.