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Physiotherapy: Everything You Want to Know About Physio & Seeing a Physical Therapist

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Do you suffer from any chronic pain? It’s all too common to suffer from aches and pains— especially as you grow older, have suffered a sports injury, or have a chronic illness. Have you ever considered seeing a physiotherapist? Keep reading to find out why physios are considered the mechanics of the human body — and exactly how physiotherapy can help you feel your best!

What is physiotherapy and how does it help you?

In simple terms, physiotherapy can be defined as a treatment method that focuses on the latest evidence-based and natural physical approaches to help people reduce pain while also promoting, maintaining, and restoring wellbeing. (1)(2)

There are four main reasons why physiotherapy is one of the best alternative therapies covered by insurance:

  • Physiotherapy allows for a fast and optimal repair of your body
  • Physiotherapy improves your quality of life
  • Physiotherapy treats a variety of conditions
  • Physiotherapy empowers you to be more involved in your health

Through a variety of different treatment modalities — such as massage, exercise, cupping, stretching, and other methods, physiotherapists help patients manage physical pain triggered by injury, disease, disorders, and aging. (3)(4)

Physiotherapists and patient using a band to strength out arms

Physiotherapists use evidence-based theories, beginning with patient assessment and continued manual therapy techniques to help restore movement and function. (5)

Who is a physiotherapist?

Health professionals who provide physiotherapy are called physiotherapists, physios, and physical therapists. A physiotherapist, or physical therapist (PT), is a highly trained health professional providing treatment for individuals suffering from physical problems caused by injury, illness, disease, and aging. (6)

A physiotherapist’s mission is to take on an integrative health approach to improve the quality of a patient’s life by using a variety of alternative treatments to restore function and alleviate pain. And in the case of rehabilitating someone with a disease, they aim to lessen physical dysfunction and improve quality of life.

Why do people see a physiotherapist?

In many cases, an injury you see a physio for can be caused by other underlying factors. It could be that your constant back pain is caused by slouching at the computer, being overweight, or not warming up before workouts at the gym. Accordingly, the physiotherapist not only treats back pain but addresses the other factors too.

Depending on your age, your general practitioner may encourage you to work with a physio. Physios help promote healthy aging, enabling people to keep working while helping them remain independent for as long as possible. This holistic and ‘whole-body’ approach taken by physios aims to reduce the risk of the injury happening again.

Did you know?
Physical therapy can help manage long-term medical conditions such as asthma, help heal a sudden injury, give an athlete the edge in a sporting event, or even help prepare women for childbirth. (7)(8)(9)

Physiotherapist helping a patient stretch their arm

Physiotherapy helps athletes recover from sport’s related injuries and surgeries using a variety of different techniques such as massage or cupping.

What does a physical therapist do?

Physiotherapists (PTs) are doing something different every day, depending on what patients they work with and if they have a specialty. A PT may have to assess the physical condition of a patient to diagnose problems and implement a treatment plan. They also could be re-training patients to walk or helping others to cope with crutches, walking frames, or wheelchairs.

Did you know?
Physical therapists can issue sick leave certificates to patients should it be deemed necessary to do so. (10)(11)

Common conditions requiring physiotherapy include:

  • Sports injuries
  • Post-operative rehabilitation
  • Work-related injuries
  • Joint sprains
  • Muscle strains
  • Headaches
  • Lower back pain (12)
  • Neck pain
  • Vertigo
  • Plantar fasciitis
  • Jaw (TMJ) pain
  • Tendinosis

Different types of physiotherapy treatment techniques

Physical therapists have a variety of different treatment techniques they can use when working with patients. Depending on your reason for doing physio, your treatment may include any of the following modalities: (12)

  • Functional training
  • Stretching
  • Massage
  • Dry needling
  • Cupping
  • Self-management strategies
  • Taping
  • Joint mobilization
  • Workout prescription
  • Goal setting
  • Lifestyle advice

What should I expect when seeing a physical therapist?

People are often pleasantly surprised by what they find during their first visit to professional physical therapy. Here are some things to keep in mind when you are getting ready for your first PT appointment. (5)

PT appointment length

Physical therapy session lengths usually last somewhere between 30-60 minutes, from one to many times a week, depending on why someone is in therapy. (13)

Attire for physio

Get ready to move, stretch, and even possibly break a sweat during your first PT session. With this in mind, it’s helpful to wear loose, comfortable clothing that is easy for movement. Not all physical therapy offices will have changing rooms, so be sure to clarify this before your appointment.

Medical history and physical therapy

It can be helpful to bring all your medical history records with you to your first appointment.

Subjective assessment of PT

A good chunk of any first therapy session will involve a discussion between you and your PT about you and your condition. Questions typically asked include: how long have you had this condition? what is the pain like from 1-10? how did this start? have you seen a doctor for this? what makes the pain go away, what makes your pain worse? does your physical pain affect your daily life?

Did you know?
You can prepare for your first physio visit by requesting to fill out your intake form online prior to your appointment.

Objective assessment of physiotherapy

This is the part of the appointment when the PT will physically assess an injury. You are often asked to perform a series of movements to demonstrate discomfort or stiffness.

Exercises and treatment

Depending on how long your assessments take, your PT may then bring you through some movements for you to do at home before coming in for your next appointment (This is where you may sweat).

Follow-up PT sessions

Your physio will reassess your condition during each session you come in for, and together you can decide whether you need a follow-up appointment.

woman stretching on an exercise ball

As you improve from PT treatments, your physio may give you more and more challenging exercises between appointments.

How do physios become licensed physical therapists in North America?

To become a licensed physiotherapist in the US, a physio must complete the following steps:

Earn a bachelor’s degree in a health-centric field as an undergraduate

Before enrolling in a doctoral program for physical therapy, physios in the US must hit particular prerequisites. Prerequisites often include courses such as chemistry, physiology, biology, anatomy, and physics.

Complete a doctor of physical therapy program or a master’s

To work as a physical therapist in the US, you must complete a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) that is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). A list of accredited CAPTE programs can be found here. In Canada, physios must receive their master’s degree in Physiotherapy from an accredited college. There 15 universities in Canada (ten in English, five in French) that offer a professional master’s degree in physiotherapy.

Pass a competency exam

The National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE) is a computerized, 250 questions, multiple-choice test that all PTs must take in the US. PT applicants are allowed to take the exam up to three times in twelve months. In Canada, physios must pass the Physiotherapy Competency Exam (PCE) that is administered by the Canadian Alliance of Physiotherapy Regulators (CAPR).

Meet a state or province’s licensing requirements

All the licensing requirements on PTs are set state by state depending on where they practice. Meeting state requirements may also include a law exam as well as a criminal background check. In Canada, a physiotherapist must register in the province which they intend to practice in.

Complete a residency (optional)

Once a PT meets a state’s licensing requirements, they are licensed physical therapists, although they may also choose to partake in a clinical residency. Clinical residencies typically last one year and can be taken a step further in the form of a fellowship in an advanced clinical area.

Obtain a board certification (optional)

After working, a PT in the US can choose to apply and become a board-certified specialist in one of the eight clinical specialties offered by the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS).

Did you know?
New York, Pennsylvania, California, and Texas have the highest number of physical therapy programs in the US. (14)

What are the different specialties within physiotherapy?

The eight different physical therapy specialties that are certified through the ABTS in the US include: (15)

  • Cardiovascular & Pulmonary Certified Specialist (CCS) – general heart-health therapy
  • Clinical Electrophysiologic Certified Specialist (ECS) – rhythm disorders of the heart therapy
  • Geriatric Certified Specialist (GCS) – for pregnancy/women’s health physio
  • Neurologic Certified Specialist (NCS) – for physio-neuro therapy
  • Orthopedic Certified Specialist (OCS) – for broken bone rehabilitation
  • Pediatric Certified Specialist (PCS) – children’s health physio
  • Sports Certified Specialist (SCS) – for sports physical therapy and performance physical therapy
  • Women’s Health Certified Specialist (WCS) – for women’s health physio

Where do physical therapists work and what else do you need to know about physiotherapy?

Physios work in a variety of places. They practice at hospitals, community health centers, private practices, sports clubs, rehabilitation centers, schools, fitness centers, and in the workplace. Physios either work alone or with a group of alternative healthcare providers and therapists to provide a multi-directional approach to rehabilitation. (16)

Do I need a referral to see a physiotherapist?

In some states and provinces, you may or may not be able to visit a PT directly without going through a primary care doctor. If you are unsure, the best bet is always to call the PT’s office and ask.

How do I find a physical therapist near me?

Your primary care practitioner will often be the person who will refer you to a PT when they feel ongoing hands-on therapy would be beneficial. If you are in search of a physio in your area, the best first step is calling your practitioner’s office and asking for a referral.

You can also directly contact the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) or look up physios in your area via their online directory. (17)

Do physical therapists take insurance?

Some do, and some do not. That’s why it’s good to call a PT’s office ahead of time to make sure they take your insurance.

How long do people usually have to go to PT treatments?

The answer to this question is entirely dependent on why someone is going to a physio in the first place. For example, a sixty-five-year-old with severe arthritis may do physical therapy weekly to promote healthy aging and mobility, while a younger athlete recovering from an ACL tear may come in multiple times a week for just 3-6 months. (18)

Did you know?
If someone is seeing a physio for a tweaked neck or back they can often finish treatment and feel better in five sessions or less.

The bottom line

Are you working with a physical therapist currently? Try and keep the following in mind to get the most out of your treatment plan!

  • Be active and adherent to your treatment plan. If your PT gives you stretches or exercises to complete between sessions and you do not complete them, you cannot expect to get better.
  • Listen to your body and use common sense. If physical therapy starts to feel like too much, it’s your body trying to warn you to bump the breaks.
  • Remember to communicate. Try and communicate how you are feeling with your PT during your treatment sessions. It’s essential that you feel comfortable with your physiotherapist and are willing to open up to them and listen to their advice. (19)

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