What Is a Physiotherapist?

If you’ve ever had an illness or injury that impacted your ability to move or carry out daily tasks, your doctor may have referred you to a physiotherapist to get you back on your feet. A physiotherapist, or physical therapist, works with patients to help them manage pain, balance, mobility, and motor function. 

At some point in their lifetime, most people will work with a physiotherapist. You may have been referred to one after a car accident, after surgery, or to address low back pain. They work with patients with all types of conditions or limitations.

What Does a Physiotherapist Do?

A physiotherapist works with patients to develop customized programs designed to restore their functional ability and movement as much as possible. They are trained to help patients at all stages of life — from infant to old age — whose function and movement are impacted by:

  • Disease
  • Health conditions
  • Injury
  • Environmental factors
  • Aging
  • Disorders 
  • Weight issues

Physiotherapists achieve this by using a variety of methods, including:

  • Have the patient do certain exercises
  • Massage muscles
  • Use muscle stimulation devices
  • Manipulate joints
  • Teach certain lifestyle activities like walking, posture, etc.
  • Stretching muscles

They take a holistic (whole-body) approach, addressing the physical aspects of your well-being and your emotional, psychological, and social well-being. They work at all stages of healthcare, including prevention, education, intervention, rehabilitation, and treatment.

The goal of a physiotherapist is to improve your quality of life. 

Education and Training

In the United States, the path to being able to practice as a physiotherapist requires a lot of education and training. They must first earn a doctor of physical therapy (DPT) degree from a physical therapist education program that is accredited (approved) by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education.

From there, they must pass the state exam to become licensed.

Most DPT programs take approximately three years to complete. The curriculum may include courses in biology, physiology, anatomy and physiology, biomechanics, neuroscience, behavioral sciences, and more.

The bulk of the training (80%) is done in the classroom and lab, while the other 20% involves clinical education.

What Conditions Do Physiotherapists Treat?

A physiotherapist can treat a vast number of conditions and injuries. Some examples include:

  • Orthopedic: Back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, arthritis, low back pain, foot conditions, sciatica, knee conditions, joint problems, etc.
  • Neurological:Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, neuropathy (nerve damage), vertigo (feeling dizzy/off balanced), cerebral palsy, stroke, concussion, etc.
  • Autoimmune:Fibromyalgia, Raynaud’s syndrome, Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Guillain-Barre syndrome
  • Chronic conditions:Asthma, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, etc.
  • General wellness

They may work in a clinic, hospital, nursing home, or rehabilitation facility, or they may go to the patient’s home. They will often work with doctors, providing feedback regarding a patient’s progress and any issues they notice while working with them.

Reasons to See a Physiotherapist

There are a number of reasons you might see a physiotherapist. Sometimes your doctor will refer you in order to address a specific injury or condition. Other times you will go on your own and get physical therapy.

Some of the most common reasons people see a physiotherapist include:

  • Illness: After a prolonged illness or during/after an illness that impacts mobility, balance, or motor skills.
  • Chronic health condition: Some chronic health conditions like diabetes can impact mobility and balance.
  • Following surgery: After surgery, getting up and moving is a very important part of the healing process. If a body part such as a hand, foot, or back were affected, physiotherapy can help the patient regain use or compensate.
  • Injury: Injuries that leave the patient with a lot of pain or the inability to move can often be addressed through physiotherapy.
  • Aging: As people age they experience changes in their bodies that impact movement and function. Physiotherapy can help them regain some of that function or teach them how to work with the loss.
  • Major health crisis:Heart attack, stroke, traumatic brain injury, and other health crises can leave a person with great difficulties in normal everyday function. Physiotherapy can help patients regain some or all of that function.
  • Improved physical performance: Athletes or even just patients who want to perform better in their fitness pursuits may turn to physiotherapy to learn strategies for maximizing the body’s potential for performance.
  • General wellness: Patients may begin physiotherapy to counteract the effects of aging, learn skills for staying mobile and healthy, and staying flexible.

What to Expect at the Physiotherapist

When you make an appointment with a physiotherapist, you will probably be asked to wear comfortable, loose clothing and shoes with good support (like athletic shoes). That is because you will likely engage in some physical movement.

At the first appointment, the physiotherapist will review your records and get a complete medical history, looking at any X-rays and other tests you may have. They will ask you questions about your medical history, lifestyle, and the illness or injury that they are treating. It is important to be completely honest with your responses.

You will likely be asked to walk, bend, and do other simple tasks that allow them to assess your physical capabilities and limitations. They will then discuss a customized physical therapy program with you.

At follow-up appointments, you will usually have certain exercises or movements that you will be asked to perform. The activities that you do during your physiotherapy are part of the program that they created just for you to help you reach your wellness and recovery goals.

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