October is National Physical Therapy Month, and like many of the other “-ists,” we physiotherapists take advantage of the month to celebrate our profession and promote awareness of exactly what it is that we do. Indeed, physical therapy is a noble profession, as is any in healthcare, and we get quite troubled when our profession is misunderstood and misrepresented.
I am sure the West Indies cricket team’s physical therapist will agree that what the public sees him do when he runs out onto the field to “spray” a player, is nowhere near the skilled evaluation, diagnostics and treatment of injuries that he performs behind the scenes.
So despite how easy his job looks to the general public, there is much more knowledge, skill and problem solving that goes into keeping wayward players healthy through education and injury prevention programs, and efficiently rehabilitating injuries once they have occurred.
Just this week, I came across two people who thought physical therapists were masseurs/massage therapists.
This is a very common misconception and I will bet my bottom dollar that every physical therapist has had at least one experience where he/she has had to educate the misinformed individual.
While basic massage techniques are part of the physio’s very large toolbox of treatment techniques, often used for scar breakdown, muscle inhibition and to increase joint range of motion, massage therapy is a specialty unto itself, with innumerable methods of soft tissue mobilization and has its own specialists.
Physical therapy and occupational therapy (OT) are two closely related professions that also often get confused.
Occupational therapy is concerned more with a person’s ability to understand and carry out roles, tasks and routines that enable the patient to be independently involved in a job, self-care and even leisure.
OT’s are trained in modifying the physical environment as well as helping patients use assistive devices and other modifications to achieve meaningful function in society.
Physiotherapists focus more on gross motor tasks such as training patients to walk again, to get up from a chair, and are trained in identifying and maximizing movement potential in spheres of recreation, home and job.
A patient who has had a stroke and is unable to use the left side of his body serves as a simple example to illustrate the different, yet overlapping roles of OT and PT. The physical therapist will focus mostly on helping the patient regain the ability to walk safely, stand and balance properly and negotiate steps and other common obstacles so that he/she can perform certain tasks and activities.
The OT will focus on helping the patient perform those self-maintenance activities such as feeding, grooming and dressing as well as doing simple household tasks like cooking.
Physical therapists are also often confused with exercise physiologists. These professionals study the acute and chronic responses of the body to exercise, as well as the effect of exercise on pathology, and the mechanisms by which exercise can help a medical condition.
For example, the exercise physiologist at Total Rehab specializes in wellness programs and also uses exercise to help patients with cardiac and respiratory conditions.
Other exercise physiologists work with athletes and others focus on risk assessments and exercise programming for other special populations.
The physical therapist must have a thorough knowledge of exercise physiology, as his/her primary concern is helping to improve the function and quality of life in special populations who have injuries and other medical conditions.
Exercise is the primary modality used to reach such goals, and it is therefore imperative that the PT has an understanding of how exercise affects such disease processes.
I recently saw a retired surgeon as an inpatient in a hospital. He had had open-heart surgery and also had his gall bladder removed.
I was called in to help him mobilize in order to reduce the harmful effects of bed rest, to increase his strength, and also to help him strengthen and clear his lungs of fluid and improve his breathing so that he could perform his activities of daily living without difficulty and therefore be discharged home safely.
Knowledge of these disease processes and how they are affected by exercise was vital for me in this patient’s success.
Not only was he a physician and challenged my medical knowledge, but he was quite astonished at what physical therapists do behind the closed doors.
He voiced his only concern, then realised what we do and how important we are in the after-care of patients post surgery.
So the physical therapist is a highly trained, very important member of the healthcare team.
We remediate impairments, pain and disabilities, and promote mobility, function and movement potential through examination, diagnosis and physical interventions that include very specialized skills. Whilst we are affectionately known to some of our patients as “Physical Terrorists,” this nickname is quite misleading as you’ll see when you’re pain free!
Carla Rauseo, P.T., M.S., C.S.C.S. is a physical therapist and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist at
Total Rehabilitation Centre, El Socorro.