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What To Look for When Picking a Physical Therapist

Much like choosing a doctor, it’s important to find a physical therapist who understands your specific medical problem and has a detailed plan to treat it.

Like physicians, physical therapists are often specialists, with advanced training known as board certifications, in specific treatment areas. Among them:

  • Cardiovascular and pulmonary
  • Geriatrics
  • Oncology
  • Orthopedic
  • Sports
  • Wound management
  • Neurology
  • Pediatrics

It’s also true that the field has undergone a transformation over the past two decades. There was a time when a trip to a physical therapist might yield any number of treatment strategies, from heat and cold packs to ultrasound to lasers and electrotherapy.

But increasingly, the field has turned to treatments proven to work, abandoning – or at least minimizing – some of those once-preferred options.

Active vs. Passive Treatments

Treatments can be divided into two types: active and passive. The focus used to be on passive treatments, where things are done to the patient. Among the more common options are hot and cold packs and ultrasound. They often are effective at relieving pain in the short term, and have their appropriate time and place. But research has shown they aren’t necessarily all that good at helping you with long-term recovery from an injury or surgery.  

That’s why the mindset has shifted to a focus on active treatments – where you are more involved in the process. This typically includes stretching and strengthening exercises. In a sense, you become responsible for your own rehabilitation, with the physical therapist acting as a facilitator.

Therapists are trained to be movement specialists, helping them better understand how a particular dysfunction causes pain. That gives them the tools needed to focus on solving the underlying problem, rather than just chasing the symptoms (pain).

Warning Signs

When searching for a physical therapist, look for someone who emphasizes active treatments. That’s not to say that passive treatments never have a place. But the treatment plan should be built around exercises that will help you get better.

Therapists who focus too heavily on passive pain-relief options – which are quicker to provide – may simply be turning out patients, one after the other. That’s a definite warning sign.

Also important is how the therapist approaches your initial assessment. The point of that first meeting is to determine your limitations on range of motion, strength and balance. The therapist needs to gain a better understanding of what’s causing your problem. If they don’t put their hands on you to help assess these things, that’s another red flag.

What You Should Expect

Approach your first meeting with a therapist like a one-on-one interview. The therapist should seek a detailed history of your problem, while also taking measurements, assessing range of motion and strength. That should be followed by a detailed discussion about your care plan and how you will be involved in it. You will get the most out of your physical therapy when you play an active role.

The plan should take into account your own goals, whether that’s returning to work, getting back into a favorite sport or simply seeking a life without pain. Treatments should then match those goals with your personal schedule and tolerance to the exercises.

Your therapist should help lay out a plan that covers your day-to-day activities, types of exercises, what will happen during sessions and what you’ll need to do on your own at home. In the end, the ultimate goal of therapy is to get you to a point where you can manage it on your own. That will also give you the tools you need to manage a flare-up later.

But what happens if you visit a new therapist and decide the fit isn’t right? Not everyone feels comfortable rejecting a medical professional in person. Perhaps the simplest solution is to not schedule any immediate follow-ups with the therapist. Tell them you need to look over your schedule when you get home. Then, leave and find someone else.

You will get the most out of your treatment when you are working with a physical therapist who best matches your own goals and who can adapt to what you need.

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