Under the pressure of college applications and academic expectations in my senior year of high school, I began to experience severe back and neck pain. As a result of this pressure, I’ve gone through five years of continuous physical therapy. Last year, I was diagnosed with temporomandibular joint dysfunction, which is chronic joint pain and muscle tension in the neck and jaw. This physical issue has been with me for so long that I often view the pain as normal, when in reality there’s nothing normal about a 20-year-old girl having the same physical issues as her 75-year-old grandfather. But I’m not alone. I’ve bonded with plenty of students on campus in the two years I’ve been here about neck pains, upper back aches and shoulder kinks that just won’t quit.
As students at a fairly competitive school where expectations are high, we face a kind of pressure to succeed that can be both mentally and physically exhausting. According to the American Psychological Association, stress can result in muscle tension. It’s a reflex designed to protect the body against injury. However, when the muscles are tense for too long, stress-related disorders – like migraines caused by prolonged neck and back muscle tension – begin to develop. GW should offer inexpensive physical therapy sessions to students with stress-related injuries and require students who are training to become physical therapists in the doctoral program to provide the services.
Younger generations have reported higher levels of stress with fewer outlets for relief, and millennials hold the record for highest levels of stress, over Generation X and baby boomers. The U.S. National Library sent out a survey to students in 2008 asking about their psychological stressors in relation to their presence of back pain. More than half the respondents claimed to be in physical discomfort and associated it with feeling overwhelmed, anxious and sad. On top of that, students have the compromising physical stress of sitting hunched over a textbook or laptop for hours every day, carrying a heavy backpack everywhere and pulling all-nighters.
These problems can’t be solved with just one massage or a few Advils. My personal insurance plan has been covering physical therapy sessions every month since my junior year of high school, and even in that long span of time, I haven’t been magically cured of my chronic pain. However, for students with little time and funds, long-term physical therapy isn’t always a possibility.
But GW has the resources to address stress-related physical pain on students. The U.S. News & World Report rankings for graduate physical therapy programs listed GW as having one of the top 50 programs. About 133 students are currently in training to be Doctors of Physical Therapy and must take certain courses and internships in order to familiarize themselves with the practice before graduating, according to an employee of the School of Medical & Health Sciences’ admissions department. As a result, the University can solve two problems at once: physical therapy students looking for hands-on experience could practice on students looking for a more consistent solution to their chronic pain.
The University does already have campus recreation programs that can provide short-term pain relief, but they also have significant downsides. Massage therapy, when performed regularly, can promote full healing and restore function to the muscles, according to the national wellness franchise Massage Envy. But sessions at the Lerner Health and Wellness Center can cost anywhere from $78 to $300, and U.S. News reported that these practices aren’t covered by most insurance plans.
Considering that these physical therapy sessions would be performed by PT students in training, the rates for these sessions could be cut to affordable prices. For example, I pay a copay of $40 for each one of my private sessions, but this program could cut this copay in half and charge $20 because the students lack a degree. The rest of the cost could then be covered by GW student health insurance. Any student who goes to the Colonial Health Center for chronic physical pain could be referred by a doctor to the physical therapy department, where students could then perform the proper medical procedures needed. The student health insurance plan, which claims to help you “obtain necessary treatment if you develop a serious illness or injury,” should cover about 15 sessions a year, giving each student the option to try physical therapy or even to use these sessions as preventative treatments for stress-related injuries. This solution gives students easy access to on-campus facilities without forcing them to pay more than $1,000 for a solution to their discomfort.
Some might argue that students of the physical therapy doctoral program shouldn’t be ethically allowed to perform procedures on students because they’re not officially licensed. However, we can counteract this by having professors from the program oversee the sessions to ensure that all medical practices are performed correctly.
If universities are going to put this kind of academic and social intensity on its students, then the school should provide solutions to better cope with the physical repercussions. Headaches and muscle tension are often directly caused by the body’s responses that accompany stress, but many other physical disorders – such as heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and gastrointestinal issues – can also be stress-induced. The University has a duty to use its clearly available medical resources to help the students who are unable to stop stress from ruining their bodies. This solution benefits both students looking for professional physical care and physical therapy doctoral candidates.
Emily Jennings, a junior majoring in communications, is a Hatchet opinions writer.
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