ALEDO — Friday night football games, early morning jazz band practice, opening weekend of the musical — for Aledo physical therapist Jon Swanson, there was little he didn’t do during high school.
The 2006 Aledo High School graduate said his school days were packed with activities and friends. He majored in kinesthesiology at the University of Illinois and earned a doctorate degree in physical therapy from Bradley University in Peoria.
In May 2011, he married his high school sweetheart, Lara Johnson. The next year he opened the Aledo location of Advanced Rehab and Sports Medicine.
“I love this area," said Swanson, 32. "Growing up in Aledo, it offers a lot of unique opportunities where you can do a little bit of everything. Was I great at all those things? Absolutely not. But I had fun doing all of them.”
The area, he said, is a good place to raise his 4-year-old son and an 18-month-old daughter.
"Anywhere in Mercer County, as a kid, you’re able to hop on your bike and go to your friend's house and you feel pretty safe," he said. "That small town aspect both Lara and I really like."
He said it was during his 7th grade year when a science class sparked the interest that led to his career. He spent high school exploring science and medicine.
"I was drawn toward the sports aspect," he said. "There's a lot of one-on-one patient time. I was split between chiropractics and PT (physical therapy), and did some observation with (Aledo chiropractor) Dean Herrin."
His small town connections ultimately brought him home. As an undergraduate student, he worked summers at Cottage Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine in Monmouth, a position that came about through a conversation his mother had during a haircut by the mother-in-law of the clinic’s co-founder, Chris Byers.
In Monmouth, he was able to shadow physical therapist and manager Doug Price. Swanson and Price had attended the same Aledo church.
“He allowed me to not just do laundry, but follow him around with patients, and get more exposure that way," Swanson said. "It was a really neat learning environment.
"I really like the patient aspect of PT," he said. "It's more exercise. It's more education. It fit into my interests more; I was pretty sure it’s what I wanted to do."
After he graduated from Bradley, Swanson was contacted by Price wondering if he would be interested in opening a clinic in Aledo.
"There’s a lot of roots in this area — it just made sense to have an Aledo Clinic since there were so many ties back to the community," he said.
He outgrew the first Aledo location and moved to 103 SE 5th Ave., near Walmart, in 2017.
Swanson does outpatient orthopedic physical therapy, including therapy for surgery recovery, injuries, chronic pain, neurological conditions and workers compensation assessments.
"Physical therapists are musculoskeletal experts. That means aches, pains, breaks, and surgeries," he said. "The No. 1 thing we see is back pain. Close behind it would be knee pain, just painful or after surgeries. We see a lot of shoulders, work injuries, rotator cuff injuries, pain in feet as well."
Chiropractors and physical therapists administer treatments and exercises differently, he said. He compared it to a plumber and a pipefitter — "We use some of the same things, but different case loads."
Swanson said often people with acute pain will see a chiropractor; people with more persistent issues will see a physical therapist.
“It’s not the rule; that’s just how it plays out in Aledo," he said. "Either way you can’t go wrong."
Since August 2018, Illinois has allowed direct access to physical therapists, meaning a patient can see one for evaluation and treatment without first seeing a doctor. His clinic offers free screenings for people who aren’t sure what route to take, as well as a follow-up wellness program.
"Those pre-screenings are a really nice tool a lot of people in our community can use because you don’t know where to start," he said. "If it’s something simple, let’s make it simple."
Swanson sees a wide demographic range, from pediatrics to geriatrics. Within the same day, he said, he has seen an 8-year-old and a 94-year-old.
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"Most people are doing well enough to joke around and have a good time — kind of forget you’re here because you’re in pain — and just feel like you’re having fun now," he said. "That’s really rewarding when you’re helping someone but having fun through the whole process and enjoying the process."
Swanson said he enjoys the challenge of finding a way to motivate patients — "when you’re working with a patient that doesn’t always want to put in the work to get better."
"Exercise isn’t always the most fun thing to do," he said. "We try to make it fun. We try to make it specific to the person.
"Someone who doesn’t like to exercise, we’re going to find what we can actually do throughout the day to make it not seem like quite so much exercise," he said. "We all have to exercise our whole life."
In therapy, Swanson uses hands-on techniques, exercise and modalities. Education is an important element when helping patients overcome exercise anxiety, he said — teaching someone an exercise, teaching them about their disease process, how long they’re going to have pain, and what to expect.
That education, he said, is important to help prevent pain related to recovery from becoming a chronic situation.
"Pain is an OK thing to a point," he said. "If we know what to expect and how to get over it, a lot of times we don’t need as much (medication) and we can get through it with exercise and different types of things to help the person heal through that process.
"Studies out about chronic pain show how changing the way a person thinks about pain is very, very therapeutic," he said.
Swanson said long periods of pain can add depression to their challenges.
"We have to educate them in how to be well. We’re addressing the whole person," he said. "There's a saying in PT that healing is a process, not an event."
Swanson said he uses every opportunity within a 45-to-60-minute session to educate patients while doing exercises.
"You've got a lot of time to talk, a lot of time to have fun and talk about what you have to do — tell bad dad jokes,” he said with a laugh.
He told how an older patient with low back pain was standoffish. He helped her to open up and, over time, she told him her life story while he helped her find exercises she could tolerate.
"Sometimes when you can build that relationship with a person and get to know them, then you can figure out what’s really valuable to that person," he said. "Then you can start progressing to what’s important to them exercising-wise instead of saying, ‘This person doesn’t like to exercise, I can’t help them.'
"Over time we’ve built a trust, and we have more and more fun spending time working through different problems she has," he said. "I got to play the role of helping her to do what she wants to do.
He told of his work with another patient dealing with neurological issues.
"We worked with her and, by the time we were done working, she was able to walk with a walker around her house," he said. "Imagine the increased freedom from there.
"Some people, they just work so hard they get better," he said. "And that’s really cool.
"When you’re working with people who have had strokes, they make a lot of progress in the beginning and it tapers off so you have to do a lot of intense therapy right at the beginning," Swanson said. For one such patient, he said, homework meant mind exercises on the computer and writing essays in longhand.
"With him, it was more just giving him all the information he needed to do and keep updating as we went to make sure he wasn’t guarding himself," Swanson said. "I gave him the permission to do all these things, because he was a little bit guarded. He did really well."
Along with his work, Swanson coaches his son's T-ball team and helps with the YMCA's track program for grades 1-6. He's on the Aledo Main Street board and completed a one-year term as president of the Aledo Jaycees.
"I still do a little bit of everything and get to be a part of everything," he said.