Physical Therapy 101

Let me start with an embarrassing story. The day I choose a career in physical therapy, I had no idea what a physical therapist did. For any future physical therapists or even the general public reading this, I will make sure you are a little more informed than me.

Let us start with the official definition first.  According to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), “Physical therapists (PTs) are highly-educated, licensed health care professionals who can help patients reduce pain and improve or restore mobility – in many cases without expensive surgery and often reducing the need for long-term use of prescription medications and their side effects.”1

This does a pretty good job of capturing physical therapy in a sentence. However, it is only the tip of the iceberg, leaving a lot of questions. How does this magic happen? Where does this happen? Can we have some specifics? Luckily, the APTA does have the resources to answer these questions and more.

In case that is not enough, I will just provide my own non-APTA approved thoughts on the subject. I would tweak the APTA statement slightly to say we help people best participate in life. You may be thinking this is just a fancy way of saying physical therapists get people better? Yes and no. Physical therapy is a broad field, you need a level of generality to encompass the entire field. To best participate in life you need to maximize mobility and reduce pain. In some cases we can help people sleep better, tolerate sitting better,  or even go to the bathroom better without necessarily reducing pain or maximizing mobility. That is why I like the more inclusive helping to participate in life.

Using the words “participate in life” is important. The bedrock of physical therapy is improving function. An example of this is a patient who just had a stroke. I am more worried about him or her being able to life activities such as walking rather than trying to get the brain perfectly healed on an MRI. If that patient has decreased arm use and  decreased range of motion, our focus is the function of that arm. Sometimes we need to treat range of motion to increase the function of that arm, but the end goal of increased function is paramount. If someone can do everything they need to do with the arm but still lack some motion, I am happier than the reverse. If he or she has the motion, but the patient is still unable to use it their daily life that is a less acceptable outcome.

In physical therapy, we treat people from birth to death of all shapes, sizes, and medical conditions. We can do this in almost any environment including but not limited to healthcare, home, school, and community settings. We treat people using various methods including but not limited to hands on techniques, exercise, education, assistive devices, referring and collaborating with other healthcare professionals, and other modalities. As above, we do not prescribe drugs or perform surgery.

Most importantly, why do we do this? For myself, I like to help people. I am sure many of my peers would share that feeling. To conclude, I would say: Physical Therapy helps any and all people best participate in life at any place or time through various interventions (excluding drugs or surgery). I still think it could use some further refinement, but this is a start. I am sure some will disagree, but multiple perspectives are the spice of life.

Hope that helps,



  1. Who are Physical Therapists? American Physical Therapy Association. Published November 24, 2015. Accessed July 16, 2016.

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