In an editorial that appeared in PT Magazine in October 1999, the publisher remarked:
"Physical therapists are good people to know. They're educated in understanding the interaction of all your body parts. Their hands-on approach begins with examination, diagnosis, and treatment of the immediate problem. Then they teach you how to take care of yourself by showing you how to do exercises and how to use your body properly to gain strength and mobility and prevent recurring injury. You'll find them advising on proper posture and body motion in the work place, treating injuries, consulting on fitness, and administering physical therapy in the home. Today physical therapists provide help for every part of the body to everyone from infants to the elderly - more than 1 million people every day!"
A Closer Look Focus on Physical Therapy
by Andrew Guccione, PT, PhD, FAPTA
What Is a Physical Therapist?
Today's physical therapist has a lot to offer for patients of all ages. Chances are, you have already heard of physical therapy. You might have heard from a friend how physical therapy helped get rid of his or her back pain, or you might know someone who needed physical therapy after an injury. You might even have been treated by a physical therapist yourself. But have you ever wondered about physical therapists-who we are and what we do? Read on.
The Essence of Physical Therapy
Although the use of certain techniques of physical therapy goes back to ancient times, the modern profession of physical therapy developed in the twentieth century, in the wake of World War I. The very first modern American physical therapists were trained to work with soldiers returning from the war, and several groups of "reconstruction aides," as they were then called, actually were sent to military hospitals in France to institute early rehabilitation with wounded veterans. Today's physical therapist is a direct descendant of these brave women (and a few men). Physical therapists now practice in a wide variety of settings, with patients from all age groups. Many people are familiar with physical therapists' work helping patients with orthopedic problems, such as low back pain or knee surgeries, to reduce pain and regain function. Others may be aware of the treatment that physical therapists provide to assist patients recovering from a stroke in learning to use their limbs and walk again. If you are old enough to remember the midcentury polio epidemics, you might be aware of the important role that physical therapists played in helping people with this disease minimize or overcome its paralyzing effects. Each of these recollections captures the essence of physical therapists. In today's health care system, physical therapists are the experts in the examination and treatment of musculoskeletal and neuromuscular problems that affect peoples' abilities to move the way they want and function as well as they want in their daily lives.
Movement and Function
The ability to maintain an upright posture and to move your arms and legs to perform all sorts of tasks and activities is an important component of your health. Most of us can learn to live with the various medical conditions that we may develop, but only if we are able to continue at our jobs, take care of our families, and enjoy important occasions with family and friends. All of these activities require the ability to move without difficulty or pain. For some of us, the ability to move is not merely a matter of using our limbs to walk or handle objects. There are cardiac and pulmonary problems that interfere with the body's ability to use oxygen, which is the "fuel" of muscles and movement. Because people of all ages, from the newborn to the very aged, have the need to move and function, physical therapists work with patients across the lifespan. You might see physical therapists working with patients or clients in hospitals (even critically ill patients in the intensive care unit), in nursing homes, in outpatient clinics, in the home, in schools, and on the job.
Because physical therapists are experts in movement and function, they do not confine their talents to treating people who are ill. A large part of a physical therapist's program is directed at preventing injury and loss of movement. Physical therapists work as consultants in industrial settings to improve the design of the workplace and reduce the risk of workers overusing certain muscles or developing low back pain. They also provide services to athletes at all levels to screen for potential problems and institute preventive exercise programs. With the boom in the fitness industry, a number of physical therapists are engaged in consulting with individuals and fitness clubs to develop workouts that are safe and effective, especially for people who already know that they have a problem with their joints or their backs.
Education and Licensure
Because physical therapists are required to understand a vast array of problems that can affect movement, function, and health, all physical therapists are college graduates. The majority of physical therapist education programs graduate students with a master's degree, and a few schools offer a clinical doctorate in physical therapy. All physical therapists also are required to take a national examination and be licensed by the state in which they practice. Some physical therapists seek advanced certification in a clinical specialty, such as orthopaedic, neurologic, cardiopulmonary, pediatric, geriatric, or sports physical therapy. Others are certified in electrophysiological testing and measurement.
The cornerstones of physical therapist treatment are therapeutic exercise and functional training. In addition to "hands-on" care, physical therapists also educate patients to take care of themselves and to perform certain exercises on their own. Depending on the particular needs of a patient, physical therapists may also "mobilize" or "manipulate" a joint (that is, perform certain types of movements at the end of your range of motion) or massage a muscle to promote proper movement and function. Physical therapists also use methods such as ultrasound (which uses high frequency waves to produce heat), hot packs, and ice. Although other kinds of practitioners will offer some of these treatments as "physical therapy," it's important for you to know that physical therapy can only be provided by qualified physical therapists or by physical therapist assistants, who must complete a 2-year education program and who work only under the direction and supervision of physical therapists.
Most forms of physical therapy treatment are covered by your insurance, but the coverage will vary with each plan.
Whatever the reason that brings you to a physical therapist, professional care to restore your movement and promote your ability to function at the highest level possible is available. Just ask your physical therapist.
When Do You Need a Physical Therapist?
The following list contains some of the most common reasons to see a physical therapist:
Low back pain Neck pain Shoulder, arm, wrist, or hand problems; Carpal tunnel syndrome Hip, Knee, ankle, or foot problems Sprains and muscle strains Arthritis Rehabilitation after a serious injury or surgery Stroke rehabilitation Problems with balance Hip fractures, hip or knee replacement Fitness and wellness education