What Do Physical Therapists Do?
You have probably heard of the profession of physical therapy. Maybe you have had a conversation with a friend about 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 they are and what they do? 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 (e.g., assisting them with recovering use of their limbs and walking again).
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.
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, loss of movement, and even surgery. 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 golf and fitness industries, a number of physical therapists are engaged in consulting with recreational golfers 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.
The cornerstones of physical therapy 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" 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. Most states do not legally require patients to see their physicians before seeing a physical therapist. Most of the time all you have to do is ask your doctor if physical therapy is right for you.
Are There Physical Therapy Specialists?
- Orthopedic Physical Therapy - Probably the most common physical therapy specialist is the orthopedic specialist. These specialists care for post-surgical patients, arthritis, tendinitis/tendinosis, fracture rehabilitation, muscle sprains and strains, neck and back pain, hip and knee problems, shoulder, elbow, and wrist conditions. Some are board certified as Orthopedic Certified Specialists (OCS).
- Manual Therapy - Manual therapy is a broad term that describes a variety of hands-on treatment techniques that are applied to movement dysfunctions. Grade five mobilizations, Mulligan mobilizations with movement, Maitland and Kaltenborn techniques, functional technique, neural mobilization, joint mobilization, craniosacral therapy, strain/counter strain, myofascial release, etc. These are some of the more popular manual therapy techniques. Many manual therapists will take continuing education courses, obtain certifications in manual therapy, and will sit for board certification from the American Physical Therapy Association and other organizations. Most physical therapists incorporate manual therapy techniques as a part of a complete treatment plan.
- Geriatric Physical Therapy - Some therapists specialize in the rehabilitation of seniors. As the body ages, a variety of challenges arise. We stiffen, we lose strength, our balance skills decline, our bones become brittle (osteoporosis), our endurance decreases, and we take longer to recover from injuries. Balance and fall prevention are of paramount importance to the therapist who is working with seniors and some clinics are solely dedicated to caring for those with balance problems. Most physical therapists work with seniors/geriatric patients. Some have obtained additional education, have passed a board examination, and have earned the Geriatric Certified Specialist (GCS) title.
- Sports Rehabilitation - Experts in assisting with recovery after injury and surgery. Many sports specialists help with retraining the athlete utilizing running, throwing, jumping, and sport-specific programs to name a few. A therapist with the Sports Certified Specialist (SCS) title has passed a board certified test.
- Fitness and Wellness - Physical therapists are well trained to help with your fitness needs and wellness programs. If you need an exercise program, have trouble with your weight, are concerned about osteoporosis, have an issue with diabetes, or you would like to learn how to prevent falls, physical therapists can help. The previous examples are just a few of the many programs physical therapists offer.
- Hand Therapy - Most physical therapists are well trained to treat hand and wrist conditions. Some therapists have taken additional courses and training and have passed a hand therapy certification examination. These therapists are called Certified Hand Therapists (CHTs).
- Women's Health - Some therapists specialize in women's issues such as pregnancy problems, pelvic pain, and incontinence. Special treatment is available for women who have these problems. Many that suffer from incontinence do so needlessly. A physical therapist may be able to help.
- Industrial Rehabilitation - Specialists in industrial rehabilitation help with those that have suffered on-the-job injuries. Moreover, they will evaluate work tasks, fabricate assistive devices, evaluate your ergonomic situation, and help redesign work flow/tasks to decrease the incidence of injury. Often, industrial rehabilitation specialists will evaluate your ability to perform certain job tasks with a Functional Capacity Evaluation (FCE).
- Pediatric Physical Therapy - Pediatric therapists specialize in the rehabilitation of children. They may assist with kids who suffer from cerebral palsy, developmental disorders, neurological disorders, and/or orthopedic problems. A Pediatric Certified Specialist (PCS) is a board certification that some may obtain from the American Physical Therapy Association.
- Aquatic Physical Therapy - Aquatic therapy takes advantage of the physical properties of water to assist with the rehabilitative process. Buoyancy, turbulence, hydrostatic pressure, and thermal properties of water can assist with the rehabilitation of a patient. Those suffering from chronic pain, osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, lumbar fusion surgery, or with a limited weight-bearing status are just a few of the many different patient populations that can benefit from aquatic therapy.
- Cardiac and Pulmonary Rehabilitation - A small percentage of physical therapists practice in this discipline. Those that pass the board certification have the title of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Certified Specialist (CCS) work with patients who have had heart attacks, bypass surgeries, angioplasty, breathing problems, emphysema, and other heart/lung related conditions. Physical therapists are well equipped to work with these types of patients because many of them have orthopedic ailments that limit their ability to function. In other words, a physical therapist can address the heart and lung problems as well as the muscle problems that are concurrently present.
- Neurological, Spinal Cord Injury, and Traumatic Brain Injury Rehab - A large portion of physical therapists work with patients who suffer from these conditions. Functional retraining including, walking, wheelchair use, getting in and out of bed or chairs (transfer training), moving in bed (bed mobility), and retraining patients to use their shoulders, arms, and hands are just some of the services these therapists provide to those with neurological involvement. A certified specialist holds a Neurologic Certified Specialist title (NCS).
- Balance, Dizziness, and Vertigo Rehabilitation - Many suffer from dizziness or BPPV (benign paroxysmal positional vertigo). Some clinics specialize in the rehabilitation of patients with vertigo. Patient education, strengthening, safety awareness, posture and balance exercise, walking exercise, and special techniques that affect sensory and balance centers of the brain and limbs are all important components of a rehabilitation program.
- Amputee Rehabilitation - many physical therapists specialize in the rehabilitation of amputees. Caring for the injured limb, functional and walking training, training in the use of assistive devices (crutches, canes, prosthetic limbs, etc.) are all provided by a therapist who specializes in care for amputees.
- Wound Care - Some therapists specialize in the treatment and care of wounds. This is accomplished by the removal of unviable tissue (debridement), the application of special dressings and prescription drugs/ointments, and the use of ultrasound, electrical stimulation, and aquatic modalities to promote healing. Exercise and patient education are also routine components of a wound care program.
- ECS (Clinical Electrophysiologic Certified Specialist) - A physical therapist who is board certified to perform electroneurophysiology examinations such as nerve conduction studies and electromyography.
- Lymphedema Rehabilitation - We take it for granted but a special component of the circulatory system, the lymph system, helps filter and drain fluid from our arms and legs. When this drainage system is damaged, painful swelling can result. Some therapists specialize in the treatment of lymphedema as it is called. Special positioning, massage and bandaging techniques are utilized by the lymphedema specialist.
- Osteoporosis Rehabilitation and Prevention - Some practitioners specialize in the evaluation and treatment of osteoporosis patients. Working in concert with your medical doctor, the therapist will often design a specialized weight-bearing and resistance training program for those with this silent disease.
Why Are People Referred To Physical Therapy?
You and others may be referred to physical therapy because of a movement dysfunction associated with pain. Your difficulty with moving part(s) of your body (like bending at the low back or difficulty sleeping on your shoulder, etc.) very likely results in limitations with your daily activities (e.g., difficulty getting out of a chair, an inability to play sports, or trouble with walking, etc.). Physical therapists treat these movement dysfunctions and their associated pains and restore your body's ability to move in a normal manner.
Is Physical Therapy Painful?
For many patients, one of the primary objectives is pain relief. This is frequently accomplished with hands-on techniques, modalities such as ultrasound, electrical stimulation, and/or heat or cold therapy. Movement often provides pain relief as well. Your physical therapist will provide you with the appropriate exercises not only for pain relief but to recover range of motion, strength, and endurance.
In some cases, physical therapy techniques can be painful. For example, recovering knee range of motion after total knee replacement or shoulder range of motion after shoulder surgery may be painful. Your physical therapist will utilize a variety of techniques to help maximize your treatment goals. It is important that you communicate the intensity, frequency, and duration of pain to your therapist. Without this information, it is difficult for the therapist to adjust your treatment plan.
What Will I Have To Do After Physical Therapy?
Some patients will need to continue with home exercises. Some may choose to continue with a gym exercise program. Others will complete their rehabilitation and return to normal daily activities. It is important that you communicate your goals to your therapist, so he/she can develop a custom program for you.