Eric Parent

extensive training and research in physical therapy helps patients with scoliosis and low-back pain

Eric Parent is working to advance evidence-informed treatment for people with spine disorders and pain. 

Eric Parent

An associate professor in the University of Alberta’s Department of Physical Therapy, Eric Parent earned a BSc in physiotherapy and an MSc in experimental medicine (rehabilitation) from Laval University and worked as a physiotherapist in a private practice. He received his PhD in rehabilitation science at the U of A, did postdoctoral work with the Edmonton Scoliosis Research Group and a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Utah.

Parent joined the Department of Physical Therapy in 2005 with a cross-appointment as a clinical-scientist at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital within the Edmonton Scoliosis Research Group.

Parent’s research interests include: assessing measurement properties of questionnaires and performance measures; developing prediction rules to identify responders to physical therapy treatments; and assessing the mechanisms of action of physical therapy interventions using quantitative measures from MR images. The clinical populations he is most interested in are persons with low-back pain and scoliosis.

How did you get into your area of research?
I did a master of science in experimental medicine at Laval University as my first foray into research. I was already interested in back pain, but there were not too many supervisors there that were focused on that topic. I ended up joining Dr. Helene Moffet's group in Quebec City that was studying the biomechanics of walking and stair ascent in people who had been operated on for knee arthroplasty because of osteoarthritis. My thought was to do the master’s to get research training, then find a place to do spine-related research. I came to the U of A to do my PhD, worked with Michele Battié and Tapio Videman, and we got into imaging analysis.

Why did you choose to come to the U of A?
I wasn't aware of many other physical-therapy researchers in Canada with a strong interest in spine-related research. I had visited people in the U.S., but I was more keen on staying in Canada at that time.

After my PhD, while I was doing a postdoc in Utah, I applied for a clinical scientist position at the U of A, and got it. I started working with a back-pain population on campus and with scoliosis in the Edmonton Scoliosis Research Group at the Glenrose. I continued studying repeated-movement exercise combined with MRI, documenting clinical results for low-back pain.

There had been very little done in physical therapy for scoliosis early in the 2000s, so we had to carve out where a physiotherapist doing research in scoliosis would fit. Later on, we realized there had not been a lot of effort done to use exercises in patients with scoliosis, so that's how I got started studying the effect of exercise for that population. When Alberta Health Services restructured, the scoliosis program was moved to the Stollery Hospital.

Did you work mostly with kids?
That's how I started — most of the care of scoliosis is for kids. But apart from bracing, there wasn't much being done if the curves were minor. In Europe, there were programs to treat kids with exercises, but in Canada it wasn’t routine care. So it was easier to start a randomized controlled trial, because the patients would not seek that care in the community. We had a pretty unique place from which to start a program like that.

Now I’ve started looking into what is offered to adults. Older patients have been wildly neglected, and have never really been offered scoliosis-specific exercise treatment. Rather than being worried about their posture, they're struggling with different pain issues, so we're trying to offer something there.

What sorts of exercises are done by patients?
This is something we need to clarify, because some of them come to us with the expectation that there will be an aerobic program, but our research coordinator describes it as a yoga-type program. It's really focusing your mind on controlling your posture and developing the right position. We practise this in lying, sitting and standing positions.

Where do you think this work is going in the next five or 10 years?
The type of exercise we tested was very focused on controlling posture. But we're realizing that it's not enough to be good at controlling your posture in these specific exercises; you have to train people to translate that learning into daily life. The nature of the exercise training we offer is evolving, and we will have to revisit how good the new and improved approach is compared to the old static training that was done. We also need to study the long-term effects of treating adolescents.

If you had one piece of advice to offer your grad students, what would it be?
I would offer what Tapio Videman said when I started my PhD — when you define your first question, see if you can carve out that question into three parts, and chances are the first part is going to be meaty enough to keep you busy for the whole program.

If you could choose a profession other than your own, what would you do?
I was motivated to be either an emergency doctor or an orthopedic surgeon when I started considering university, so I think I would still have an interest in that. When I started in physio, I quite liked first-aid care and supporting sports teams. I remember attending a gymnastics meet once, administering first aid, and that kept me busy!