What is Blood Flow Restriction Therapy (BFRT)?

Orthopaedic & Spine Center


by Jamie Swale, PT, DPT

As an OSC Physical Therapist, I regularly see patients who have musculoskeletal injuries or who suffer from a condition such as arthritis, which causes them pain, decreased range of motion and loss of functional activity.  Working together with OSC specialists, my job is to help patients decrease their pain, increase their function and range of motion through exercise and a variety of treatment modalities.  Blood Flow Restriction Therapy is a treatment that is very effective at helping patients recover from injury, surgery or for those who want to increase muscle mass without overtaxing a specific joint.

The concept of Blood Flow Restriction appears to have its roots in Japan.  Overtime, the concept evolved and is now being used for many different purposes.  A pioneering Physical Therapist, working with wounded US soldiers at an Army hospital, experimented how to strengthen muscles without straining already stressed joints and injured soft tissue.  He and his team discovered that the application of a tourniquet to the injured limb, which restricted (not stopped) blood flow, allowed for the soldiers to do exercises that resulted in a greater increase in strength with much less effort.  In addition, the service members saw a reduction in their pain, less soreness after muscle exertion, increased endurance and a much quicker rate of recovery.  NASA also experimented with BFRT to prevent astronauts from becoming deconditioned in space due to zero gravity. As a result, Blood Flow Restriction Therapy was born. 

Although a tool for decades, it was only around 2015 that BFRT began to gain real traction outside of military hospitals and rehab facilities. Development of sophisticated pneumatic restriction cuffs (similar to a blood pressure cuff), some of which are controlled by technologically advanced mini-computers, and Doppler ultrasound allow PTs to program blood flow restriction parameters specific to each patient and to monitor their physiologic signs (such as oxygen levels and fresh blood supply) in real-time.  This helps to ensure both patient safety and maximum exercise efficiency during a work-out.

While BFRT has existed for decades, it has recently become very popular in elite athlete training circles, as well as in Physical Therapy Clinics in the United States.  Physical Therapists are required to undergo specialized training in BFRT before they can use this modality for patient rehabilitation and treatment. The OSC Physical Therapy Team have been trained to use Blood Flow Restriction equipment and monitoring technology and now can provide this treatment intervention for any patient for whom it may be of benefit.