Wearing masks in public to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 has become a reluctantly acceptable fact of life. But there are some situations, such as during a physical therapy session, where people naturally rely on facial expressions

Masks make it harder to see patients’ expressions as they go through their therapy, and patients don’t always vocalize when they’re feeling pain, said Caroline Opperman, physical therapy assistant and facility director at Phoenix Rehabilitation and Health Services, of Sunbury.

Kara Rothermel, physical therapist, director of Rehabilitation Services at Evangelical Community Hospital, agreed.

“As a therapist, your smile is critical to the patient for feeling comfortable,” she said. “We’ve been trying to find other ways to make that connection.”

In some situations, face shields can also be used, she said.

It can be especially challenging when working with patients with conditions like temporomandibular joint syndrome, Bell’s palsy of the face or speech problems, said Christa Lucas, system director, Rehabilitation Services, Geisinger.

“Geisinger has created tabletop shields (for such situations),” she said. “They’re also at the front windows. They give an extra layer of protection between people.”

Joe Wood, director of Therapy Operations at UPMC in the Susquehanna Region, said therapists are finding ways to work around the drawbacks of wearing a mask.

“I think we’ve had to focus on ramping up our verbal communication, particularly related to pain,” he said. “One way is to explain what patients might feel beforehand (when starting an exercise).”

“It kind of stinks overall, missing the human interaction,” Opperman said. “But our patients have all been good about it. No one has complained about the masks.”

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