How can physical therapy help me? I didn't break my hip, or need a walker.
I get asked this often. I do not think many people understand what physical therapy is, or what it can do. I'm including physicians, nurses, and even physical therapists in that statement.
Most people have at least heard of physical therapy. Most people think it's only for grandma, or a neighbor in a wheelchair, or the coworker that had surgery. Let's help understand what it is, what it does, and why it's for anyone.
Physical therapy is the realm of optimizing movement. Still vague, I know, but it's a really big field of study. The defining qualities of physical therapy will be varied, as opinions always are, but here's my view and why I think it's amazing and necessary.
To optimize movement, we have many involved systems that all need to be optimized.
If you were going to optimize a car for speed, you would improve the engine, the steering, the braking, the aerodynamics, the fuel, the road, and all the parts of each of those. It becomes a long list of systems to optimize.
If you were going to optimize a structure for stability, you would improve the materials, the foundation, the design, the equipment, the support structures, and all the parts the make up each of those listed.
In the human body, we have multiple systems that all affect how we move. We can consider the muscles, joints, nerves, the brain, blood supply, digestion, and even the outside environment. That's not an exhaustive list, but you get the idea.
When we look at the way we move, we have many conditions that can alter or restrict those movements. We may have tight muscles, weak muscles, tired muscles, spastic muscles, poorly controlled muscles, injured muscles, painful muscles, unused muscles, deteriorated muscles, deprived muscles, and on and on. That's just looking at the muscles. Each of the systems that affect movement can have a lengthy list of conditions that impair it.
When our movement is impaired, our lives are impaired. That is where physical therapy comes in.
What physical therapy does is helps people move better so they can do the things they want to do. Sometimes it's a simple as getting a muscle to be stronger, or getting a joint to move freer. Sometimes it's teaching someone how to move in a more efficient way, or getting circulation to return to an area. Sometimes it's helping the brain to reprogram so the movement can be done, the brain can react, and the person can utilize that movement pattern.
It's not easy to define, but it wouldn't be easy to describe all the parts of being an auto-mechanic or an engineer either.
Physical therapists are movement specialists. They are highly trained and help people move better. That can be walking after an injury, returning to elite athlete status, or being pain free throughout the day.
Physical therapists can be highly specialized on certain areas of the body or certain populations also. Some physical therapist will work specifically with seniors, or only with children. Some may work only with athletes, or stroke patients, or spinal cord injuries. Some specialize on training the heart and lungs, or pregnant women, or even animals. Physical therapists can help with chronic pain, sexual dysfunction, balance, bowel and bladder issues, neurological disorders, or cancer patients. Some may only work with runners, or lifters, or swimmers, or gymnasts, or baseball players.
Physical therapists have a wide range of skills, and as more progression in each field happens, more specializations also happen. Some may be highly focused on exercises, while others on education, and others on hands on skills such as massage, joint mobilizations, and sensory stimulation.
All the diversity of physical therapy can be confusing to navigate, but the good news is, you don't have to. A good physical therapist will help you determine if you are in the right place, and if you're not, they will find you the right person. When you go to the auto shop, the mechanic determines the problem with your car, and tells you a plan. Sometimes the mechanic will handle the problem themselves, but sometimes they send you to another specialist to take care of the issue.
You might not understand all the parts of the car, but you know how to use it. Same thing with your body. You might not understand all the moving pieces and everything that goes into it, but you know how you want it to perform. When it's not performing the way you want, bring it in to someone that can help you fix it. That's physical therapy.
Physical therapy helps you find your body's problem, so you can create a solution, to get you back to doing what you want to do without limitations. We should have just started with that.