Educating Your Patients About Energy Conservation Techniques
If you’re a new grad occupational therapist or OT student, you may have heard the phrase “energy conservation techniques,” but may not be fully familiar with this concept. Energy conservation techniques are a widely used strategy for occupational therapists in many settings, so we want to cover what they are and how you can apply them. So what are they?
Energy conservation techniques (or ECTs) are also referred to as work simplification techniques, and both terms are very much within the realm of occupational therapy practice.
In order to clear up a common misconception, let’s state right off the bat that promoting energy conservation techniques is not synonymous with promoting the “art of laziness.” Rather, energy conservation techniques allow for users to redistribute efforts to complete daily tasks that are most important to them.
Duke University’s Department of Physical Therapy sums up energy conservation perfectly:
[Energy conservation] is the way activities are done to minimize muscle fatigue, joint stress, and pain. By using your body efficiently and doing things in a sequential way, you can save your energy, remain independent, and be less frustrated by your illness when the energy you have lasts throughout the day (2017).
What we gather from this is that energy conservation techniques – if they are taught correctly – promote independence.
And this is exactly what occupational therapy is all about.
Educating Your Patients on Energy Conservation Techniques
There are many energy conservation techniques that you can teach your patient to maximize their energy reserves.
Here is a general list of ideas you can work on with your patient:
- Educate your patient on pacing during the task and taking rest breaks throughout the day when they feel fatigued.
- Discuss planning and prioritizing the day around completing the most important tasks first, as well as the importance of not over-planning the day.
- Work with your patient to modify or simplify difficult tasks.
- Discuss delegating tasks as needed to family members, friends, or hired caregivers.
- Educate patients on the use of adaptive equipment during ADLs.
- Discuss completing ADLs and IADLs in the seated position. (It is useful to have chairs in every living area to take breaks.)
- Provide education and visual handouts on pursed lip breathing to complete as needed.
In addition to the previously mentioned strategies, there are seven common medical conditions (not all inclusive) which may require energy conservation techniques:
1. Multiple Sclerosis
Multiple sclerosis is probably the most common discussion piece when referring to ECTs in school – and rightfully so. Depending on the type of M.S., even the most subtle movements cause infinite fatigue and/or pain. The Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada sums up ECTs very well in their self care information page here.
Occupational therapy practitioners can offer great insight for patients using these types of educational handouts in order to assist them in redesigning their entire lifestyle if the disease progresses (or as it remits depending on the type).
If you’d like to learn more about occupational therapists’ role working with patients with multiple sclerosis, be sure to check out our article, Occupational Therapy and Multiple Sclerosis: Treatment Tips and Strategies.
2. Acute/Chronic Respiratory Failure
Energy conservation with respiratory patients often boils down to conserving oxygen for the brain. Frequently, these patients are on an oxygen supplement either daily or as needed. Over-expenditure of physical movement can result in oxygen desaturation (unsafe numbers dropping below 90% saturation).
Sometimes oxygen desaturation can be asymptomatic. Other times, it will result in increased fatigue, discoloration of the skin, nausea, and dizziness. When this happens, it is essential for the person to sit with their back supported or lay down with their head slightly elevated. In combination with ECT education, OTs can also promote the consistent use of a pulse oximeter so that their patients can track when they are doing too much and need to cut back.
3. Congestive Heart Failure and Other Cardiac Conditions
Patients with a history of cardiac dysfunction or congestive heart failure will come with a set of precautions as ordered by their primary physicians. Lifting precautions are the most common (i.e. not lifting anything above the head, lifting less than 5-10 lbs), especially after cardiac surgery.
Occupational therapy comes into play to assist in redesigning the individual’s lifestyle. If the patient is accustomed to household and yard chores that call for heavy lifting (moving boxes, carrying groceries, shoveling dirt, mowing the lawn, etc.), then the patient and the OT will work together to simplify those chores or eliminate tasks that are unnecessary.
4. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)
Often referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s disease,” amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a progressively crippling disease that eventually takes the individual’s life. Unfortunately, it mercilessly takes away their quality of life for up to several years before death occurs. OT has a vital role throughout those years as the symptoms change for the patient.
At first, it may be simply educating the patient and their caregivers about ECTs and fall prevention which includes simplifying or eliminating physical activities that fatigue the body and compromise standing balance. As the disease reaches the end stages, it may be about preserving physical energy in order for the patient to breathe efficiently and stay awake for visitors or activities in sitting.
5. Hospice/Palliative Care Patients
Generally, hospice patients are given, on average, about 6 months or less to live. Common diseases include a decline in function due to advanced age, malignant cancers, ALS, dementia, etc.
In summary, the patient and their caregivers have the understanding that the patient has an expectedly short time to live and do not generally expect functional progress. OTs working in hospice care would design treatment plans to aid patients in using energy conservation techniques to engage in only tasks that are most meaningful to them to promote a higher quality of life.
6. Repetitive Use Injuries
With repetitive use injuries, also called repetitive strain injuries, which can include carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow, tendinitis, or a rotator cuff injury as some examples, the goal of energy conservation is to minimize pain and movement to promote the healing of tissue and/or bone. Health care providers such as nursing staff and therapists are often subject to repetitive use injuries because of the physical strain of transferring patients.
Occupational therapists who work in the same facilities can provide transfer training and safe body mechanics education to prevent unnecessary injury.
However, pain and injury can still occur despite the training. When that happens, ECTs and work simplification techniques are the next best approaches (using mechanical lifts, 2-person transfers, scheduling transfers with patients ahead of time, etc.).
7. Complex Regional Pain Syndrome
Similar to repetitive use injuries, ECTs for complex regional pain syndrome would be to eliminate unnecessary pain. In this case, the pain is due to the chronic pain condition (lasting greater than six months) that most often affects one limb (arm, leg, hand, or foot) usually after an injury (Complex Regional Pain Syndrome Fact Sheet).
Because this condition is so vast in what portions of the body are affected and when, it is a complex situation fitting for OTs to apply ECTs. The OT usually works with the patient in order to prevent unnecessary exacerbation of pain by identifying tasks and physical intensities that could set the pain off.
As you can now see, energy conservation techniques are an important part of occupational therapy for patients with these conditions in these settings, and these techniques are certainly applicable to any diagnosis that impacts the individual’s activity tolerance.
For more information and for some great educational handouts that you can give to your patients, be sure to also check out the resources below:
Energy Conservation Techniques handout (Aurora Health)
This post was originally published on Jan. 7, 2018 and last updated on June 22, 2023.