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I Went to Physical Therapy for My Disability but Discovered That Depression Weakened All My Muscles

“If you don’t use it, you’re going to lose it.”

This simple phrase was a cornerstone of my childhood, especially in physical therapy. I often resisted stretching my weak, cerebral palsy-affected muscles, and the professionals in my life weren’t shy about reminding me of the consequences of not caring for my body. My cerebral palsy puts me at greater risk for muscle atrophy, so it’s imperative that I use my weaker muscle groups regularly to prevent future physical struggles.

But I never once considered that my non-affected muscles could also be significantly affected by a lack of movement — until I went back to physical therapy a couple of months ago.

My physical therapy goals were relatively simple: strengthen and improve the range of motion on my affected side. I didn’t even think about the unaffected side of my body — because it isn’t affected by my cerebral palsy, I assumed it couldn’t possibly need significant strengthening.

I was wrong.

About half way through my set of prescribed physical therapy sessions, my physical therapist began asking me to do each exercise I learned on both legs instead of just my affected leg. At first, I assumed she wanted to allow me to see what my PT exercises “should” look like on my own body, but when I expressed confusion about why we were suddenly stretching my right leg as well as my left, my physical therapist revealed that my right leg was weaker than average as well.

I didn’t know what to make of this information. I immediately panicked, wondering if I had been misdiagnosed with hemiplegia cerebral palsy for almost my entire life. Was my right leg affected as well as my left, and if so, how could medical professionals have missed the signs for over two decades?

But then I thought back on all the days I spent in bed, unable to will myself to accomplish the most basic tasks, and I realized that this time, my cerebral palsy wasn’t the cause of my muscle weakness — my depression was.

I’ve lived with depression for the past eight years, and one of the most unfortunate consequences is my inability to move my body as often as a mentally healthy person might. My mind and body are constantly at war with each other, especially when it comes time to get out of bed or to move from room to room. Consequently, I tend to stay in one place for hours on end, rarely walk, and almost never feel well enough to exercise. My sedentary lifestyle has had profound effects on my muscles — including my “strong” muscles — and the moment my physical therapist told me all of my leg muscles were weak, I got a glimpse of just how profoundly my depression has impacted me.

When we discussed the effects of my lack of movement on my muscles, my physical therapist repeated that same phrase that punctuated all of my physical therapy sessions as a child. This time, though, I wholeheartedly believed that if I didn’t regularly use my muscles, they’d lose strength — my unexpectedly weak right leg was proof that somehow, I needed to keep moving. In addressing the weakness on the “strong” side of my body, my physical therapist inadvertently reminded me that muscle loss is real — and it’s not only tied to physical disability but also to the lasting effects of mental illness.

Although I entered physical therapy to treat my cerebral palsy symptoms, I’m thankful that I’ve had the opportunity to address the physiological effects of my depression as well. The moment I discovered that even my “strong” muscles were weak genuinely shocked me, but I’ve resolved to combat my depression in any way I can and continue strengthening my entire body.

Photo by Laura Chouette on Unsplash

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