By Stuart Fife
In as much as the name describes a singular, cohesive, medial practice, there’s no such thing as physical therapy.
If you go seeking relief for an aching joint or an overworked limb, you’d likely be offered one of two phases of therapy, which are interrelated but not interchangeable. The first is physical phase, meaning a host of exercises and activities designed to prepare the body to cope and perform well. The second is the therapy phase, designed to make sure all the joints and muscles are free to function in the way we want them to. The differences are significant: when joints and body synergies have become altered, nothing but a hands-on treatment, informed by careful analysis, would help.
And yet, in the last two decades or so, many physical therapists have come to see their profession as centered around exercise. In part, this trend is driven by simple economics, as escalating health care costs made many in the field realize that the sort of treatment that could allow therapists to tend to multiple patients simultaneously was preferable to the old-fashioned physical therapy, a leisurely, one-on-one, hands-on affair.
It may seem like a solid calculation, but it’s not. It undervalues the most ancient, most basic, and most comforting of media: touch. The people who walk in to my practice expect me and my colleagues to take the time and understand their bodies, assess their condition first hand, and figure out how to make their recovery faster. And they know that no amount of catchall exercises could ever replace the careful and precise treatment that they get from a therapist committed to their individual healing.
And if you think arguing that every person is different and therefore therapists should be able to master a great number of therapeutic approaches in order to make sure that they’ve got something up their sleeves for everyone, you haven’t been catching up with the times. Sadly, more and more therapists are specializing, declaring themselves neuromuscular experts, say, or adherents of that particular approach or another. Such pigeon holing, I believe, might make sense for medicine at large, where doctors and patients alike benefit from developing a highly specific mastery of highly specific fields of practice, but it’s detrimental to physical therapists. We don’t heal livers or arteries or brain lobes; we heal human beings, and human beings are holistic creatures.
Such an approach to therapy isn’t only more pleasant and more effective, it also makes better business sense. It used to be that anyone needing physical therapy would co-pay a small sum per visit; now, that price has jumped up considerably. If you require therapy three times a week, say, you’re looking at a hefty monthly expense. And if you’re paying this kind of money, you don’t want to go somewhere only to be told to do some exercise you could’ve looked up yourself on YouTube. You want someone who takes their time, who looks and touches, who is focused on you and you alone.
Sadly, such seemingly self-evident expectations are anything but. Frustrated with the current state of physical therapy, more and more people are seeking solutions elsewhere, in other hands-on practices like deep-tissue massage. There will always be room for the purely physical aspect of our profession; it’s crucial, and serves the needs of many. But the best physical therapists, the ones that would thrive both professionally and financially, are those who get back to the traditional stuff, roll up their sleeves, and rediscover how rewarding it is, for therapist and patient alike, to work with your hands.
Stuart Fife is the Director of Physical Therapy for Optim Health