What is physical therapy anyway?

The other night I was talking with a friend who told me that she had never had physical therapy, and didn’t really understand what physical therapy is for.  I hope this weeks blog helps to clear things up!

What is Physical Therapy?

Most people I have talked to who have not had physical therapy think that it is just massage or chiropractic treatment or even athletic training.  They have seen PT’s giving massages to runners after races, or on the sidelines of sporting events stretching players out, or taping ankles.  Physical therapy is defined in the dictionary as the treatment of disease, injury, or deformity by physical methods such as massage, heat treatment, and exercise rather than by drugs or surgery.  The definition does not fully encompass what physical therapy is or what a physical therapist can do for you.

As a physical therapist (PT) I think I can clear up some misconceptions out there about what we do.  First, a PT is highly educated, having either a masters or clinical doctorate in physical therapy (I will talk about that in a later blog post).  We know the body and its systems, how those systems interact, what is normal and what is abnormal, and how to aid in the healing of the body. 

In earning a degree in physical therapy, a PT learns not only about the systems of the body, but how those systems interact, and how when one part of the system is injured, it can have far reaching effects in the body.  When you are evaluated by a PT, it is their job to detangle all of the symptoms to find the root cause of whatever the problem is.  We are investigators.  Once that root cause is found, we address that problem to restore it to normal, and then healing can begin.  There are interactions between the bones, blood, muscles, ligaments, tendons, and nerves that lead to pain or dysfunction in the body.  There are also outside influences such as posture, repetitive motion in your job, previous injury or surgery that all can influence the pain you have today.  A therapist looks at all of these factors.

So what does a PT do to treat a problem?

A PT has a “tool bag” that he/she works from.  The primary tool of a PT is their hands. This is where the misconception about us performing just massage comes in.  A good PT has sensitive hands and can distinguish between normal tissue or muscle and abnormal, injured, or diseased tissue.  A good PT also uses their ears. We listen to you, know what your goals are, and engage you in your treatment. We know that we can’t get you better without your help.  Sure we have other tools and toys that can help us to promote healing and reduce pain.  But, our job is not just to fix you, but to help you understand how to fix yourself, and prevent further injury or pain.

A good therapist earns your trust through developing a relationship with you and an understanding of you and your goals, in addition to promoting healing through physical treatment.  Although PT’s do use massage, and stretch athletes and tape ankles, that is only some of what we do.  Physical therapy is looking at the big picture of a problem, investigating to find the root of a problem, and then treating the whole person within the big picture of their life.