What is Physical Therapy?

Physical Therapy focuses on helping people recover, maintain, or improve their physical abilities. People who have been injured, are experiencing pain, or have limited mobility due to aging, an injury, or a medical condition benefit significantly from physical therapy.

Somebody who is qualified in physical therapy is a Physical Therapist. They use a variety of exercises and techniques to help clients regain their flexibility, strength, and overall function.

Physical therapy – clients or patients?

Do physical therapists have clients or patients? You will see either term used in medical texts. However, there has been a definite growth in the use of the term client over the past couple of decades.

An article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) says that we categorize very ill or injured people as patients, while those who are less ill or not so badly injured can be called patients or clients.

Occupational therapists, physical therapists, and psychologists use both terms (clients and patients), while other healthcare professionals, such as general practitioners, surgeons, or urologists always say patients, and never clients.

In this article, I will use both terms when talking about physical therapy.

All ages, professions, and socioeconomic groups

Physical therapists work with clients of all ages, from newborn infants to older adults. They play an important role in the treatment of injuries from accidents and sports, arthritis, and other chronic conditions.

Physical therapists help their clients design their own, personalized treatment plans. They also encourage them to adopt healthy lifestyles.

According to the UK’s National Health Service (in British English, the term is physiotherapists):

“Physiotherapists consider the body as a whole, rather than just focusing on the individual aspects of an injury or illness. They can give general advice about things that can affect your daily lives, such as posture and correct lifting or carrying techniques to help prevent injuries. They may recommend exercises to improve your general health and mobility, and to strengthen specific parts of your body.”

Physical therapy or physiotherapy?

  • USA

In the United States, people say physical therapy and physical therapist for the profession and professional, respectively.

  • UK and others

In the UK, Ireland, India, Australia, and New Zealand, people say physiotherapy and physiotherapist.

  • Canada

You can hear and read both expressions in Canada.

Physical Therapy - Physiotherapy - lots of images

Image created by MedicalVocab.com.

Physical therapy techniques

There are many different physical therapy techniques. Here are the most common ones:

  • Manual therapy

With their hands, physical therapists apply pressure and stretch or mobilize muscles, joints, and soft tissue. They do this to improve flexibility, relieve pain, and increase blood flow to specific parts of the body.

  • Exercise

Exercise helps patients become more flexible, build strength, and improve their coordination and balance. Physical therapists create exercise programs and routines tailor-made for their client’s needs and goals.

  • Ultrasound

Ultrasound can help treat musculoskeletal injuries after accidents, such as those that occur in the workplace or on the road. It can help reduce pain, improve healing time, release muscle tension, increase blood flow, and reduce inflammation.

Verywellhealth.com explains how ultrasound therapy can help patients with frozen shoulder:

“If you have shoulder pain and have been diagnosed with a frozen shoulder, your physical therapist (PT) may use ultrasound. This therapy is usually done before performing a range of motion exercises because it can help improve the ability of your shoulder to stretch.”

  • Heat and cold therapy

If you apply heat and cold to an affected area, it can help alleviate pain, reduce inflammation, and promote healing. Physical therapists use heating pads, ice packs, and other methods and devices to deliver heat and cold therapy.

  • Electrical stimulation

Electrical stimulation involves stimulating muscles and nerves with electrical currents. The treatment can help reduce pain and promote healing. This technique is commonly used to treat inflammation, pain, or muscle spasms.

If you want to become a physical therapist

  • In the US

If you want to practice physical therapy in the United States, you must first earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree, which typically takes three years to complete. You then must pass a state licensure exam.

Regarding the contents of your course, the American Physical Therapy Association provides the following information:

“Primary content areas in the curriculum may include, but are not limited to, biology/anatomy, cellular histology, physiology, exercise physiology, biomechanics, kinesiology, neuroscience, pharmacology, pathology, behavioral sciences, communication, ethics/values, management sciences, finance, sociology, clinical reasoning, evidence-based practice, cardiovascular and pulmonary, endocrine and metabolic, and musculoskeletal.”

  • In the UK

There are several routes to becoming a physiotherapist in the UK. With the undergraduate option, you study for a Bachelor’s and integrated Master’s degree in physiotherapy. These take from three to four years to complete – longer if you study part-time.

According to The Complete University Guide:

“You’ll need an approved degree in Physiotherapy and registration with the HCPC to become a physiotherapist.”