Cliffs Notes: Your Guide to Physical Therapy

A while back, a very poorly-informed segment aired on Dr. Oz, grossly misrepresenting what we as physical therapists actually know and do. (Disclaimer: if you are currently attending PT and receiving the type of care depicted in Dr. Oz’s segment, please find a new physical therapist ASAP) To this end, I felt it only appropriate that I  devote an entry to summarizing the many skills that we as physical therapists possess, and reiterate how we can help you, the health care system, and the country as a whole.

 Despite what Dr. Oz would have you believe, physical therapists are not merely the keepers of the machines, wielding ultrasound and electrical stimulation units against the dark forces of persistent low back pain, reinforced by our trusty sidekicks, the hot and cold packs; quite the contrary.  Currently, to become a physical therapist, one must attend 3 years of graduate schooling, in addition to their undergraduate or post-bac work. Pre-requisites for PT school are the same as those required for med school, generally with the addition of courses like exercise physiology and kinesiology in place of organic chemistry. Physical therapy graduate course work includes biomechanics, physiology, kinesiology,  pharmacology, and radiology. PT students study pathology of not just the musculoskeletal system, but also pathologies of the neurological, cardiopulmonary, genitourinary, gastrointestinal, and integumentary systems. Following roughly 7 years of schooling, physical therapists currently graduate with their doctorate, and then enter the health care industry with an identity that is often times misunderstood, and a role that is severely underutilized by the general public. Here are the cliffs notes as to what a physical therapist is, and what we actually do:

 Physical Therapists are musculoskeletal specialists. With extensive coursework in anatomy and physiology, physical therapists possess the knowledge to both diagnose and treat nearly all musculoskeletal pathologies or refer patients to the appropriate practitioners if needed. 

 Physical Therapists are movement experts. With a strong foundation in biomechanics and kinesiology, physical therapists are trained to analyze everything from your gait to your golf swing. We can determine why your knee hurts when you go down the stairs, help you decrease your half marathon time, and tell you which shoes are best for your needs.

 Physical Therapists take an active role in your recovery. Physical therapists use manual techniques such as joint and soft tissue mobilizations, taping in conjunction with therapeutic exercises to facilitate a return to full function. It is our hands, not the hot packs that will make you better. 

 Physical Therapists are easily accessible. Thanks to Direct Access, patients in New York can see a physical therapist (who has been practicing for at least three years) WITHOUT a referral from a physician. Patients are allowed to attend physical therapy for 10 sessions or 30 before they are required to see their doctor and obtain a prescription. 

 Physical Therapists don't just cure pain, we can also prevent it. Physical therapists can predict your likelihood of injury by watching you perform simple functional movements. Additionally, patients are provided with home exercise programs and educational tools that allowing them to prevent the reoccurrence of injuries and employ self-management strategies should symptoms return.

Physical Therapists help save you money. Although co-pays can be frustrating, attending physical therapy can help people get out of pain quicker, help people avoid invasive surgical procedures, and decrease the amount of medications that a patient needs to take. Six sessions with a $35 copay and an adjustment to your workstation vs back surgery. I’ll let you do the math.

 If you’re reading this blog, there’s a good chance that you already know the benefits of attending physical therapy. However, I ask that you share this blog with your friends and family, and anyone who’s complained to you about their stiff neck or their sore knee. For those of you who just had a mind-blowing experience, carry this knowledge with you and see a physical therapist the next time that ankle (or knee, shoulder, elbow, back, neck) starts acting up