Physical therapy is a great profession. We get to build lasting relationships with our patients, and unlike other professions, we get to be there when someone is seeing changes in their condition or functional ability. However there are quite a few myths and misconceptions about physical therapy that I think need to be addressed.
1. Anyone Can Do Physical Therapy
This is a myth that patients and even some healthcare professionals believe because they don’t fully understand exactly what a physical therapist does. Only a licensed physical therapist can perform physical therapy. Physical therapists are licensed professionals, who often seek to become specialized in an area of physical therapy like orthopedics, sports medicine, neurology, pediatrics, cardiopulmonary, geriatrics and even wound care. Part of this misconception comes from the belief that physical therapy is just performing a bunch of exercises and getting a few modalities like ice, heat, electrical stimulation or ultrasound. The truth is physical therapists are movement specialists whose job is to identify movement dysfunctions that are causing pain or limiting an individual’s function. Once these dysfunctions are identified, physical therapists are equipped with a variety of skills to address and correct these impairments to help a patient meet their goals.
2. I Only Need Physical Therapy When I’m Hurt
While physical therapists play an important role in rehab and post-surgical care, physical therapists can help patients with a lot of other concerns. Like I said earlier, physical therapists are movement experts, so a physical therapist can help anyone who moves, or needs to move. Fun fact, that’s everyone. Having trouble getting in and out of the care, going up and down stairs, want to improve your running mechanics, or even increase the velocity on your fastball, physical therapists can help. Not every physical therapist has the same skill set, so you would need to seek out one that can help you with your particular goals or problem. Similar to how you wouldn’t go see a cardiologist to help with your broken arm, you shouldn’t see a physical therapist who specializes in neuro rehab for your running mechanics. This ties into the thought process that not everyone can perform physical therapy, because physical therapy isn’t a tangible thing, it’s a profession with professionals who have specific skills to help people.
3. Physical Therapy is All about Modalities
Modalities are tools that some physical therapists use to help patients. Ice, heat, electrical simulation, ultrasound are all examples of modalities. Unfortunately most people think using these techniques are the extent of going to physical therapy. Some professions often say they perform physical therapy modalities in their office, which is certainly a misnomer, and in my opinion gives a bad impression of the physical therapy profession. There are multiple professions who are knowledgeable and qualified to use certain modalities in their practice, which is why modalities shouldn’t be thought of as “physical therapy modalities” they should just be referred to as “modalities”. The truth is physical therapy is much more than modalities, and in fact physical therapists should really only use modalities sparingly. Going back into the physical therapists are movement experts theme, physical therapists should focus on correcting movement dysfunctions, and if using a modality is part of that process, so be it. However a physical therapist should use a combination of treatments to help a patient meet their goals, and if a physical therapist never actually touches a patient, then they aren’t doing their job.
4. I Need a Physician Referral to See a Physical Therapist
No you don’t need to see a physician prior to seeing a physical therapist. Physical therapists have direct access which means you can pick up the phone and call any physical therapist for an appointment. Even if a physician refers you to a specific physical therapists, patients always have the choice to find a physical therapist they think is the best match for them. Remember, different physical therapists have expertise in different areas, so if you are suffering from a running injury look for a physical therapist who understands running. The best way to find the right physical therapist is ask around or use Google. Do you have a personal trainer that you see, or a massage therapist, maybe they know a physical therapist in the area who can help you.
5. Surgery is Always Better than Physical Therapy
While surgery has its place in medicine, it should necessarily be the first line of treatment for all conditions. Recent studies have shown that physical therapy has similar or better outcomes than surgery for injuries like meniscus tears, rotator cuff tears and low back pain. As an added bonus, physical therapy is usually a cheaper alternative and doesn’t come along with the risks associated with surgery.
6. Physical Therapy Will Hurt
Physical therapy is unfortunately associated with the term “pain and torture” (PT). This is a myth that often scares people from seeing a physical therapist, and it is one that couldn’t be further from the truth. A good physical therapist should work within your pain threshold and help you minimize your pain, whether it’s acute or chronic. While some techniques or treatments may be uncomfortable, it’s important to communicate with your physical therapist how you feel during a treatment so the physical therapist can adjust accordingly. Often times, because patients think physical therapy should hurt, they try to tough it out and never mention that a certain technique like Graston, Dry Needling, or a particular exercise is painful. Remember our job as physical therapists is to make you feel and move better, not hurt you.
Whether you live in the Raleigh, Cary, Morrisville, Durham or anywhere else around the country, I hope this helps clear up some of the misconceptions you may have about physical therapy. I encourage you to share your thoughts about myths you’ve had about physical therapy either in our comments section below or on our Facebook page. (https://www.facebook.com/PruePT)
About the author:
Dr. Kevin Prue PT, DPT, CSCS is a graduate of Duke University’s Doctor of Physical Therapy Program. He is the president and director of Prue Physical Therapy & Sports Performance (www.pruept.com) located in Cary NC. He specializes sports and orthopedic physical therapy, sports performance training and injury prevention for youth and recreational athletes.