If you are referred by a physician to a physical therapist, he or she will first assess your physical limitations (by way of a patient intake questionnaire and checking your “range of motion”. Then the therapist will treat your pain or injured limb or start you on a series of treatment sessions to address your chronic health condition. This is accomplished by the physical therapist using a variety of forms of tools, machines and devices to achieve certain “targets” or benchmarks for your particular therapy. The therapist aims to identify the source of your pain or your range of movement limitations. Your therapist will then treat your symptoms and seek --- through therapy --- to prevent future occurrence of pain and related loss of mobility that often occurs due to your reaction to pain.
In order to diagnose and treat physical problems, a physical therapist must complete a rigorous course of medical study and must qualify in any number of relevant health science subjects before being permitted to start his or her practice. Most physical therapists tend to specialize in a specific area such as treatment of cardiopulmonary disease, addressing neurological illness or seeking to remedy a sports-related injury. If you need physical therapy, you will usually be permitted to select your physical therapist, unless you are part of an insurance plan that assigns you to see a specific medical provider. Whether through assignment or by your own selection, you will be connected to a physical therapist has the background, knowledge and experience to treat your specific health problem or illness.
Physical therapy is used to treat a wide range of health problems and medical conditions; these include but are not limited to:
- back, neck and shoulder pain that can arise from a long list of causes
- sports injuries of all types
- injuries caused by accidents in cars, on bicycles or boating accidents
- arthritic conditions in joints, hands, feet, etc.
- physical disabilities created by traumatic injury, aging or long-term immobility
- complications following a stroke (such as learning how to walk again, or how to shake someone’s hand)
- amputations or loss of use if limbs or digits (fingers or toes)
- multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s or other musculoskeletal diseases
- COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
What does a physical therapist do?
A physical therapist treats people who suffer from a wide range of debilitating problems that affect their ability to move freely. When your range of motion doing the simplest of tasks (such as getting up from a sitting position or going to the bathroom by yourself) becomes restricted, your overall quality of life suffers. The scope and extent of the therapy sessions laid out by your physical therapist for your condition will be matched to your condition, your age and your capabilities. This “plan” depends entirely upon the type of health problem you are experiencing.
The physical therapist begins his or her file by examining the patient to document your individual “starting point” insofar as existing capabilities. Once your therapist has made a diagnosis and charted your range of motion in all affected limbs, the therapist will then develop a comprehensive, progressive treatment plan for you. The goal of this plan is to improve your physical function, expand your range of movement and improve your overall quality of life.
Each patient’s treatment outline is unique and customized to his or her specific health needs and lifestyle objectives. One patient may seek to return to competing in triathlons while another merely wants to be able to walk her dog without experiencing knee pain. The objective is to help the patient reach achievable goals that are set by both the physical therapist and accepted by the patient. The main areas for improvement that a physical therapist focuses upon are (a) enhancing or improving strength, (b) increasing flexibility and range of motion, (c) regaining proper posture, endurance, co-ordination and balance. Treatment can help to:
- restore and improve physical function and ease of movement
- increase the range of movement and flexion of limbs
- ease or eliminate pain
- improve mobility and regain occupational capabilities
- limit further complications that may appear if therapy is not timely and fully implemented
After a patient’s treatment plan has been drawn up, the physical therapist continues to evaluate and measure progress on an ongoing basis for as long as rehabilitation treatment and therapy is required. Today, tracking this is typically conducted on a laptop or tablet computer, but some still use handwritten charts. In chronic health situations, such as those involving multiple sclerosis, COPD or fibromyalgia, visits to your physical therapist may be a permanent form of treatment and therapy designed to alleviate pain and to slow down the progression of the existing condition. As treatment progresses, your treatment plan may be adapted or modified as a result of positive or negative outcomes. For example, you may not be able to perform 10 continuous minutes of peddling on an exercise cycle that is programmed to simulate hills and valleys at a level 2 resistance. New treatment routines may be outlined and implemented by the physical therapist to help you if the initial treatment plan does not produce the desired results. Another job of the physical therapist is to educatepatients and their families or caregivers about the treatment plan, the desired effects and what to expect throughout the rehabilitation process. All trained therapists know that repetition and “finishing the drill” are keys to a healthy recovery. They can also give advice to patients and their caretakers about coping with long-term physical conditions of the disabled or ill patient that will contribute to his or her pain or affect the patient’s mobility.
What treatment does a physical therapist prescribe?
Physical therapy consists of a variety of treatments that, together, help to improve physical movement and relieve pain. Resistance and weight-bearing repetitions during exercise is a primary focus of physical therapy. It is likely that your physical therapist will prescribe a combination of cardiovascular exercise and strength training exercise, in order to enhance competencies in areas such as strength, flexibility and endurance. Other treatments your physical therapist may prescribe may include deep tissue massages, heat therapy or cold compress treatment, water therapy and electrical stimulation therapy.