Why Physical Therapy?

October is National Physical Therapy month, and so I thought for this week I would take some time and discuss the career I’ve chosen.  What does it mean to me? What does a physical therapist actually do?  and WHY do we do it?


“Transforming society by optimizing movement to improve the human experience”

That is the vision statement of the American Physical Therapy Association, and it’s ultimately what guides physical therapy practice.  We don’t FIX people, we OPTIMIZE – we facilitate better movement.  Why does better movement improve the human experience?  Because the ability to move has profound impact on every aspect of how we interact with the rest of the world! Movement optimization isn’t just about running faster or jumping higher – heck, it’s not even just about running or jumping at all.  It could be about being able to pick up a knife and fork and move food toward your own mouth (or toward your kid’s). It could be about being able to lift up and hold your child (or your dog-child).  Think about this: what would your life be like if you couldn’t move (for whatever reason)? I guarantee that regardless of your current activity level, you would be distressed.  You would lose so much more than your movement, you would lose your independence and your sense of self.

That’s WHY physical therapists want to optimize movement.  Because movement = independence, sense of self, and participation in your own life.  And there are a lot of different ways we do this, depending on the needs of the patient.


Take, for example, ME. Following my hip surgery, my physical therapist used a lot of different techniques at different stages of my recovery to help me optimize my movement.

While I was still on crutches, he offered a lot of EDUCATION:   tricks and tips to help me get around the house, drive a car, get myself in and out of my CPM machine, and conserve energy so that I wouldn’t have to depend on others to function (I did anyway, because moms are the best!), and so that I could continue my schoolwork without interruptions.

Throughout my rehab, he did lots of soft tissue work, scar tissue breakup, range of motion, and strength.  IN the early stages, it was all passive ROM and isometric strength to preserve my body’s abilites in order to prepare for getting off the crutches and being able to walk again.  later, it became more active, getting me toward higher and higher levels of function.

And lastly, EMPOWERMENT.  Helping me get over my fear of certain movements that had previously caused pain or led to injury, and helping me believe in my body’s ability to do these things again.  Last week, for example, I came in with back pain that radiated down my leg.  It had nothing to do with my hip, but I had wanted to go hiking that weekend and was scared of “messing it up even more”.  My PT simply said, “just make sure you keep your core braced.”.  He didn’t say, “No”, or “that’s a bad idea”, or “you’ll probably want to come see me afterward to deal with the after-effects”.  He just showed me a good way to do what I wanted to do.  And I climbed that mountain without pain!


That, I think, is the most important part of our jobs, is empowering patients, building their confidence, and ultimately facilitating INDEPENDENCE.  I once had a provider say to me, “you might just need to come in every two weeks for the rest of your life if you want to keep doing what you’re doing”.  Um….NO NO NO! Our ultimate goal as healthcare providers is to get the patient to a point where they can do everything they want to by themselves-whether it’s getting a post-op hip back to competing in marathons or getting a spinal cord injury patient back to competing in marathons.  Sometimes that involves verbal education, tips on the best way to do things, sometimes it involves re-setting a body structure that’s out of balance  (for lack of a better/non-technical term) and teaching the patient how to keep it in -balance, or even just showing them that YES, they CAN, and they CAN without YOU! 


Bottom line: it’s true as it is in any other profession: some PTs are better than others.  Some are doing this as a job; hopefully, more and more are doing it as a career, or better yet, as a calling.  It’s my hope that more and more physical therapists come to embody this in their practice – empowering PEOPLE, not “fixing” bodies.

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