They’re the first to help those in emergency situations, but first responders are among the most selfless when they experience pain or injury of their own, says Shoreline physical therapist Bruk Ballenger.

And yet, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), more than 22,000 Emergency Medical Services (EMS) first responders suffer on-the-job injuries each year – about 8 percent of the workforce.

“Ironically, one of the main reasons first responders are injured on the job is because they are unlikely to report injuries in the first place, or seek treatment unless the pain becomes unbearable,” said Ballenger, owner of Prevail Physical Therapy in Shoreline. “EMS workers often tough it out and work through bruises, scrapes, or sprains, which can only exacerbate injury and pain-related issues down the road.”

While some injuries to police officers, firefighters, EMTs, etc., are obvious – they’re all dangerous jobs, after all – others, such as potential injuries to the musculoskeletal system, can be more difficult to spot.

For example, the CDC reports that 34 percent of first responder injuries were sprained or strained muscles, 35 percent were from overexertion, and the rest were injuries to specific body parts such as the shoulders, lower back, or hands.

“Common on-the-job tasks and movements like heavy lifting, repetitive strains and motions, and trips, slips and falls can lead to pain and injury that should never be ignored,” Ballenger said. “But be it pressure to do the job or a general sense of duty, first responders – like athletes so focused on competing – have a tendency to want to tough it out. But what seems small now can, if left untreated, can lead to bigger injuries down the road.”

To combat such issues, Ballenger recommends the following three-step approach to first-responder health. It’s a strategy that includes taking steps to prevent injuries from happening in the first place, but quickly identifying the signs of potential injuries and getting help from a physical therapist or personal physician.

  1. Exercise Regularly: Staying in shape is a good way to optimize your overall fitness and functional abilities at work, particularly in a physical career. By always maintaining a fitness regimen – one that focuses on strength, cardio health, flexibility and balance – one can take steps to reduce injuries and, if/when they happen, hasten healing.
  2. Frequent Check-Ups: Getting an annual health physical is just the beginning. Also seeing a physical therapist annually can improve a first responder’s ability to identify any weaknesses or imbalances when it comes to the musculoskeletal system – issues that can be corrected before they lead to on-the-job injury.
  3. Know the Warning Signs: Are you (or a friend/loved one who works as a first responder) experiencing recurring pain that doesn’t resolve over a couple of days? Do you regularly feel pain or tightness in your back or neck? Do you find yourself compensating for movement limitations or weaknesses that weren’t always there? Such issues can progress into more serious conditions if left unchecked and untreated by a medical pro like a physical therapist.