10 Misconceptions about Physical Therapy
Misconception #1: All physical therapists are the same
Physical therapists all come from different backgrounds including training, continued education, and personal experiences. These varying characteristics can lead to different philosophies of treatment. Although PTs graduate with similar fundamental knowledge and “tools”, the education and career path each PT takes after their schooling may add more tools and will dictate what tools they use and when. While all PTs should have the same goal—getting you back to a pain-free lifestyle as soon as possible—not all PTs are created equal.
One negative experience with physical therapy doesn’t mean that you should write off the potentially life-changing care of a PT entirely.
But how do you go about finding a physical therapist who is right for you?
When seeking out a PT, it’s important to shop around and find one that you like. Where to start? Search different terms online to narrow down what you’re looking for (ex: knee pain specialist, back pain, etc.). Ask friends and family for recommendations or go to your doctor for a referral. Additionally, try cold-calling clinics and asking questions like “Do you offer one-on-one treatments?” and “How long will my sessions be?” Gather as much information as you can to find the right match for your condition. Try to find someone that you “jive” with personally as you’ll be spending some quality time together.
During your course of treatment ask yourself, “Does my PT understand my goals?” You should feel like you’re working towards those goals during each session. Finding a PT that you connect with and relate to could actually lead to a situation where you look forward to coming in for treatment!
Misconception #2: Physical therapy is going to hurt
That old adage of “no pain, no gain” is FALSE. Somewhere along the way, physical therapy picked up a reputation that treatment hurts, or that it’s supposed to hurt. Some patients even delay coming in to PT because they think they should wait until their pain subsides so they don’t make anything worse. Why wait when they can help you now?! If you’re in pain, there is rarely a reason to wait to come to PT.
Research shows that the sooner you begin treatment, the better chance you’ll have of recovering quickly and efficiently (saving you and the healthcare system time and money).
As long as you can get to the clinic safely, even if someone else has to drive you, PTs can likely do something to make you feel better. Lastly, your PT should rarely do anything that makes your pain worse and if they do, perhaps they’re not the right fit for you. Know that your treatment may be a little uncomfortable at times depending on what you’re being seen for, but a good PT is going to be constantly checking in with you to gauge your comfort level throughout treatment. If something is bothering you, they’re going to adjust the plan of care accordingly.
Misconception #3: You have to see a doctor before you can go to a PT
This mindset dates back decades to when people began seeing their primary care doctor as “the gatekeeper” to all other healthcare professionals.
Truthfully, if you’re in pain or you have a musculoskeletal issue, a PT can likely help and you can save time and money by going straight to them.
Think for a second about a chiropractor. An average person experiencing back pain would probably think, “I should see a chiropractor”. They likely wouldn’t go to their doctor to ask permission, they would just go see a chiropractor directly. Physical therapy is no different! Physical therapists are the experts in musculoskeletal injuries and prevention. If you have pain anywhere, you should automatically be thinking physical therapy. If for some reason your condition is out of the scope of a PT’s practice, they are well-equipped to refer you to the appropriate practitioner. A good physical therapist asks all of the right questions to rule out anything that’s not musculoskeletal.
Misconception #4: To be a physical therapist, I just need a certification
Surprisingly, many people are unaware that to become a physical therapist you need about seven years of schooling, not to mention a ton of hands-on, clinical experience and education that continues even after you begin practicing.
PTs nowadays receive a clinical doctorate degree; that’s what the DPT after a PTs name stands for – Doctor of Physical Therapy.
They then take a national board exam to earn a license to treat patients, yet some people still can’t tell you the difference between a physical therapist and a personal trainer. By the way, personal trainers are awesome! However, when you’re in pain, your rehab becomes out of their scope of practice.
Misconception #5: Physical therapists “fix” people
A physical therapist’s job is to enable you and be active in your recovery but there is no “cure-all” button that they push to get rid of all your pain instantly. Physical therapy is a team effort. In other words, it is unlikely that you will get positive and lasting results from having all of your treatment done TO you (passive approach). As a patient, you should go in expecting to do a little bit of work.
A great PT will not fix you; they will help you learn how to fix yourself.
This may seem daunting at first but it’s actually quite encouraging as YOU are the one in control of your recovery. Your PT is there to guide you and provide some hands-on treatment early on while also teaching you the tools necessary to move and function long-term and on your own. As great as it is to see your PT regularly each week, you don’t want to do that for the rest of your life!
The work that you put in with your PT during each session is important but what is more important is what you do when you’re not with your PT. Your posture, your daily activities, what you’re doing at work, and even how you’re sleeping ALL affect your pain. There is only so much your PT can do during the time the two of you are together each week. Your physical therapist should give you the necessary guidance to function properly so you can continue an active, pain-free lifestyle on your own.
Misconception #6: You’ll be given clamshells no matter what
Look, there’s a time and a place for a clamshell or any other basic theraband exercise but doing clamshells for the rest of your life is not going to get you better. Your PT should give you custom exercises based on your unique body and specific condition (this may or may not include clamshells, but don’t be deterred!).
Your exercises shouldn’t stop at a clamshell; they should simulate the demands of the activities you are hoping to return to without pain.
On that note…
Misconception #7: Physical therapy is just exercise-based
Research shows that the combination of exercise AND manual therapy AND patient education is often the most effective treatment plan for a variety of musculoskeletal injuries. Although there may be some benefit to seeing a PT once and learning safe exercises you can do on your own (versus not going at all), this is not ideal nor should one expect a full recovery with this approach.
Some people may be hesitant to start PT because they’ve been told it’s going to be strictly exercise-based, yet they’ve never exercised before.
Know that your PT is there to be your coach and they’re not going to push you beyond your limits.
Every plan of care is different and will be tailored to your unique needs. Most importantly, don’t be afraid! If you are, be honest with your PT and let them know. Chances are they’ll make you feel at ease in no time.
Misconception #8: Your PT will tell you to stop doing what you love
Your physical therapist’s number one goal is to get you back to doing what you love as soon as possible! To delay treatment and ignore your pain because you want to keep running or keep training is only going to hurt you in the long run. In many cases, the longer you hold off treatment, the longer your recovery will take. Ideally, your physical therapist will not tell you to stop participating in your favorite activities unless it is necessary for health and/of safety reasons. Instead, they can incorporate these activities into your treatment plan.
Sometimes reducing or eliminating the aggravating activities is necessary to make progress, but this may just include modifying the amount of any particular activity, not stopping it entirely.
They want to focus on what you CAN do, not what you CAN’T do.
Another reminder that the goal of your PT is for you to get back to your favorite activities, fully healthy and as soon as possible.
Misconception #9: You have to be in pain to go to physical therapy
Frequently, people only think of PT when they’re seriously injured such as after a bad car accident or while recovering from surgery. Physical therapists do a lot more than address pain after an injury. A lot of their expertise lends itself to injury prevention and improving performance. Diagnosing problems in movement and function before those issues turn into serious or debilitating conditions can save you time, money, and frustration down the road. You don’t need to be in pain to come see a PT.
Believe it or not, it’s actually quite likely that you’re moving in a way that is dysfunctional – putting you at risk for future injury – even if you have no pain at all!
Addressing the issue now can pay off in the future.
Misconception #10: Once you’re discharged, you’re done
This misconception goes back to one we’ve already discussed: Physical therapists “fix” people. Your PT should give you the tools necessary to live a pain-free life but the ball is in your court to use those tools correctly and to ensure that your daily activities are not compromising the work that you’ve already put in.
YOU are in control of your recovery and you and your PT have hopefully worked together to help you adopt new healthy habits for lifetime wellness!