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What Does a Physical Therapist Do?

Updated: Oct 12, 2023

Physical therapists play a pivotal role in evaluating, diagnosing, and treating a wide range of musculoskeletal and neuromuscular conditions. They are essential members of the healthcare community, playing a diverse and critical role in improving the physical health and well-being of individuals across various age groups.


From assessments and personalized treatment plans to rehabilitation and preventive care, physical therapists are dedicated to helping patients achieve their goals and regain their independence. Their expertise is invaluable in promoting better health, reducing pain, and enhancing the overall quality of life for countless individuals seeking improved physical function and mobility.


Who is Qualified as a Physical Therapist?

Physical therapists are highly trained healthcare professionals who hold at least a Bachelor's degree in Physical Therapy, and many have pursued advanced degrees like a Master's or Doctorate in Physical Therapy for further specialization. To practice legally, they must also pass a licensure examination specific to the country or state in which they work.


Physical therapists often specialize in various areas, such as orthopedics, sports medicine, pediatrics, neurology, cardiovascular and pulmonary rehabilitation, and more. These specialties allow PTs to focus on specific patient populations and conditions, tailoring their expertise to better serve individual needs.


Physical therapists and physiotherapists are similar healthcare professionals who provide rehabilitation services to help patients recover from injuries, manage pain, and improve physical function.


How Does a Physical Therapist Assess and Diagnose Their Patients?

A critical aspect of a physical therapist's role is the initial evaluation of a patient. This assessment involves a comprehensive review of a patient's medical history, physical examination, and discussions about their symptoms, limitations, and goals.


While physical therapists do not provide medical diagnoses, they are skilled at identifying musculoskeletal and neuromuscular issues. Based on their assessment, they can determine the causes of pain, reduced mobility, or other physical limitations.


How Does a Physical Therapist Decide on a Treatment Plan?

A physical therapist decides on a treatment plan through a systematic and patient-centered approach. The process involves several key steps and considerations to ensure that the plan is tailored to the individual's specific needs and goals. Here's how a physical therapist decides on a treatment plan:


Initial Evaluation and Assessment

The first step in creating a treatment plan is the initial evaluation and assessment of the patient's condition. During this assessment, the physical therapist collects information about the patient's medical history, current symptoms, and any relevant diagnostic tests or imaging results.


The PT conducts a comprehensive physical examination, which may include evaluating posture, range of motion, muscle strength, flexibility, balance, coordination, and gait (walking pattern).


Through conversations with the patient, the PT gathers information about the patient's goals, expectations, and any specific activities or tasks they want to improve or return to.


Diagnosis and Problem Identification

Based on the assessment findings, the physical therapist identifies the underlying causes of the patient's physical challenges. This involves diagnosing musculoskeletal or neuromuscular issues that may be contributing to pain, limited mobility, or other symptoms.


The PT considers factors such as muscle imbalances, joint dysfunction, postural issues, and neuromuscular deficits in the diagnosis.


Setting Clear and Achievable Goals

Working closely with the patient, the physical therapist establishes clear and achievable treatment goals. These goals are specific, measurable, and time-bound, serving as benchmarks to track progress throughout the treatment process.


Goals may include reducing pain, improving mobility, increasing strength, enhancing balance, or achieving functional milestones.


Individualized Treatment Plan

Based on the assessment findings and the established goals, the physical therapist develops an individualized treatment plan. This plan is customized to address the patient's unique needs and preferences.


The treatment plan includes a combination of interventions and modalities that may include therapeutic exercises, manual therapy techniques like joint mobilization, soft tissue massage, modalities like heat or cold therapy, ultrasound, and patient education.


Treatment Techniques and Interventions

The PT selects specific treatment techniques and interventions that are most appropriate for the patient's condition. This may involve:

  • Prescribing therapeutic exercises and stretches to improve strength, flexibility, and range of motion.

  • Implementing manual therapy techniques to address joint and soft tissue restrictions.

  • Using modalities to manage pain and inflammation.

  • Providing education on proper body mechanics, ergonomics, and strategies to prevent further injury.

  • Developing home exercise programs to reinforce progress between clinic visits.

Reassessment and Modification

As the patient progresses through the treatment plan, the physical therapist continually reassesses their condition to monitor changes and adjust the plan as needed.


The PT modifies treatment techniques, exercises, or goals based on the patient's response to therapy and any new developments in their condition.


Patient Education and Empowerment

Throughout the treatment process, the physical therapist educates the patient about their condition, the purpose of each intervention, and strategies for self-management and injury prevention.


Empowering the patient with knowledge and tools to manage their health is a crucial aspect of a physical therapist's role.


Collaboration and Communication

Physical therapists often collaborate with other healthcare professionals, such as physicians, orthopedic surgeons, or occupational therapists, to ensure comprehensive care and coordination of services. Communication with the patient's healthcare team is essential to provide holistic care.


What are the Different Specializations in Physical Therapy?

Physical therapy is a diverse field, and physical therapists can specialize in various areas to meet the unique needs of patients with specific conditions or age groups. Specializations in physical therapy allow professionals to focus their expertise on particular areas of practice.


Orthopedic Physical Therapy

Orthopedic physical therapists specialize in treating musculoskeletal conditions such as fractures, joint replacements, and spine disorders.


Neurological Physical Therapy

Neurological physical therapists work with patients who have conditions like stroke, multiple sclerosis, or Parkinson's disease to improve motor function and mobility.


Pediatric Physical Therapy

Pediatric physical therapists focus on treating children with developmental delays, injuries, or congenital conditions to promote proper growth and development.


Geriatric Physical Therapy

Geriatric physical therapists help older adults maintain mobility, prevent falls, and manage age-related conditions to enhance their quality of life.


These are just a few examples of the many specializations within the field of physical therapy. Physical therapists can choose to work in one or more of these areas, depending on their interests, training, and certifications. Specialized knowledge and skills enable physical therapists to provide targeted and effective care to patients with specific needs.


Physical therapists are essential members of the healthcare community, playing a diverse and critical role in improving the physical health and well-being of individuals across various age groups and conditions. From assessments and personalized treatment plans to rehabilitation and preventive care, physical therapists are dedicated to helping patients achieve their goals and regain their independence. Their expertise is invaluable in promoting better health, reducing pain, and enhancing the overall quality of life for countless individuals seeking improved physical function and mobility.




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