The Tactical Rehab and Conditioning program at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center is designed to prevent and treat injuries to first responders.

The strenuous demands on first responders every day can take a toll on their bodies and minds. Now, a new physical therapy program at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center is among only a handful nationwide that addresses the specific needs of these men and women after an injury and helps them prevent injuries so they can serve their communities safely and effectively. 

“We see a lot of injuries among first responders to shoulders, knees, ankles, and other areas of the body from the physical demands of their job,” said Chris Kolba, a physical therapist in Ohio State Sports Medicine. “They have very demanding jobs and can often be in life-or-death situations, so preparing their bodies and minds the best we can to deal with that is extremely important.” 

Kolba developed the Tactical Rehab and Conditioning program at Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, where participants complete drills that involve advanced strengthening, climbing, carrying, wrestling, and other moves that mimic what first responders tackle each day. By adjusting the program for job-specific needs, physical therapists help first responders develop the strength, flexibility, endurance, and skills that allow them to safely lean into physical tasks and obstacles. 

“That little bit of hesitation or apprehension could really be the difference between them going home at night, going to the hospital, or a number of bad outcomes,” said Kolba. “They approach physical tasks a lot more confidently if they know that their shoulder, knee, or back has already handled some of that load in training.” 

After years serving his community, Columbus Police Sgt. Joseph Riddle felt the physical demands of his job and opted for total shoulder replacement surgery on both shoulders in 2021 and 2022. Dr. Julie Bishop, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine physician at Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, successfully completed Riddle’s surgeries, giving him relief from years of pain. Each surgery was followed by several months of physical therapy in the Tactical Rehab and Conditioning program with Kolba. Riddle said his shoulders feel stronger and healthier today than they ever have before. 

“If you don’t maintain a strong, physical body in this job, you’re compromising yourself, your personal safety, and the safety of the public,” said Riddle. “It’s important that you, as the first responder, make sure your body is prepared for what you’re doing for a living.” 

In addition to physical therapy and training, the Tactical Rehab and Conditioning program at Ohio State Wexner Medical Center provides first responders with access to sports medicine doctors, nutritionists, psychologists, and other specialists throughout their careers to support their overall health and well-being. The team is also conducting research among the first responder community, including head and blast impact, effect of the gear they carry on their bodies, and vision and reaction times pre- and post-fatigue. Kolba intends to share the program with other healthcare institutions to build a model that benefits first responders across the country.