I get the question "What is physical therapy?" all the time. I'm going to debunk some myths about what people believe physical therapy to be and explain what it actually is and should be.
First off, PT has had a bad reputation in the past and I think a lot of that comes from the fact that some people don't understand physical therapy and what it can do for you. Unfortunately some of that is due to poor physical therapy in the world. There also isn't a lot of education on what PT's can do. For example, EVERYONE knows what their chiropractor can do. Everyone has their own chiropractor that they've used their whole lives. Not everyone has their own PT. In fact when people are sent to PT from their provider, a lot of times they will refuse to go altogether or they go in to the evaluation with a negative mindset which leads to poor outcomes. If your medical provider doesn't really know what physical therapy can do for you, then you may start out your treatment already feeling like you won't get relief. Let's talk about some of the biggest things I see when people are either afraid of PT or feel like it won't work.
"Physical Therapy is Painful!"
Everyone knows the nickname for PT's: "Physical Terrorists". I hear it every week. Although there are times when your physical therapy should be painful or difficult, the majority of times it shouldn't be that way. For example, if you're coming in after surgery and your PT is trying to get your range of motion back to normal, it may be painful to stretch your joint and soft tissue. Unfortunately, it will have to be painful because of the limitations in your joint and the normal healing that is occurring in your body part after surgery. However, that should be about the only time that your physical therapy is painful.
You shouldn't be leaving your physical therapy sessions in more pain than when you came in. I always try to tell my own clients, "If you are sore tonight after your PT session that is very normal. We're trying to make things move and work that don't want to move and work. However, if you have an increase in your symptoms that we're treating you for, (i.e. there's an increase in nerve pain down your leg), that is not ok." Your symptoms should be getting better with the things done to you by the physical therapist and the exercises. If you are leaving physical therapy with increased symptoms, please express that to your PT so they can adjust your treatment for you. Physical therapy shouldn't be a painful experience.
"Physical Therapists are just glorified Personal Trainers"
There isn't anything wrong with being a personal trainer! However, physical therapists are doctors in their field and also considered movement specialists. We spend 3 years in grad school learning how the body moves versus how it may move when there is dysfunction. We also learn how all of the things in the body are connected and work together to allow motion to happen and how our muscles and nerves work together to make that happen.
A personal trainer can very well have education in sport and exercise science or kinesiology (the study of how the body moves), but they don't have to. Anyone can study and take the exam for a personal trainer. If you feel like your physical therapist is just a personal trainer because all you do is go and work out like you would at the gym, then you need to have a conversation with your PT or find a new one. You shouldn't be going into your physical therapy feeling like you're working with a personal trainer at the gym.
Learn more about the differences between a Physical Therapist and a Personal Trainer here in my blog entry PT: Physical Therapist or Personal Trainer?.
"I could be doing this on my own"
I've had a lot of clients come to me in the past and say, "I've had PT in the past and it didn't work. What's the point of me going when I can do the exercises at home or in the gym?" Then, they quit their plan of care and quit physical therapy.
A lot of times initially your physical therapy may look like a lot of stretching. It's very gentle and focused, but eventually you're going to exercise in order to retrain movement patterns. If you feel like you do the same 5 exercises on your own and then they slap some heat on you and you go home, then I can understand why you didn't get relief from your previous physical therapy. Your sessions should not be you completing things on your own, even if your PT doesn't lay their hands on you to do manual treatment. You should AT LEAST be receiving education, tips, cueing on the appropriate muscles to use, the right posture, the correct technique, how to progress or make sure you don't have pain. If you feel like you could do the exercises on your own or at the gym, then again you need to have a conversation or find a new PT.
Manual therapy may or may not be necessary for you to see progress and notice a decrease in your pain. However, I personally feel that manual techniques can provide you with relief and help your body move more effectively. At the very least, make sure that your PT is aware of what you are doing and that your technique is correct and you know why you are completing the activity.
Make sure that you are not falling into these myths with your therapy and not seeing progress with your rehab. You need to discuss any of these issues discussed above with your PT. The only way we, as therapists, can be made aware to make changes and help you better is by you constantly giving us feedback on how things feel, if you're making progress, are things more painful, and do you feel like you're at a gym and can do things at home, etc.
If you feel like you have a physical therapist that isn't doing it for you then reach out to me. I would love to help you. I can help virtually if you're not in the area. If you're in Atlanta or the metro area then I can journey to your home or gym to help you feel better.