Choosing the right physical therapist for you

Academy Communications
Published: 4/21/2022 3:50:25 PM
Modified: 4/21/2022 3:49:09 PM

With warmer weather ahead and outdoor activities such as biking, hiking, running, tennis and extreme sports resuming, injuries are bound to happen that may require physical therapy for healing. But taking the time to seek out and choose the right physical therapist can be an important investment in wellness, according to Willow Henry of Franklin Pierce University.

“All physical therapists are not created equally,” said Willow Henry, PT, DPT, the Dr. Arthur M. Pappas Professor of Health Care Practice Endowed Chair at Franklin Pierce University’s College of Health & Natural Sciences. “There are many niches and specialties within the field of physical therapy, so patients really need to make sure they’re choosing the right therapist, not only for their injury or illness, but also for their specific goal of recovering from their injury or illness,” she says. “Patients should take the time to find a therapist with the right expertise, and who seems like they will be a good fit.”

Dr. Henry is an assistant professor who teaches in the Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program. Her specific area of expertise and practice in physical therapy is treating patients with lymphedema, the build-up of lymph fluid in the fatty tissue under the skin, which can cause swelling and much discomfort.

Graduates of physical therapy programs earn a DPT, and need to be licensed in order to practice. Some therapists specialize in niche areas that require additional training, including more complex musculoskeletal issues and areas such as neurology, pediatrics, women’s health, cardiopulmonary, pelvic health, and oncology.

If a patient has a generalized musculoskeletal issue such as plantar fasciitis (inflammation of the band of tissue that connects the heel bone to the toes causing pain in the heels) the patient can seek care from any physical therapy clinic that would have availability to work with the patient.

There are specialties within populations, such as pediatrics or geriatrics. “For many of my geriatrics patients, it’s important to work on their balance,” said Henry. “A lot of my own practice has been with patients who had been falling, so as part of their treatment I challenge their balance in order to make it better.”

Additional physical therapy specialties are manual therapy, orthopedics, sports, and electrophysiology, which uses electrical stimulation to decrease swelling caused by fluid.

Some patients prefer to have a bilingual therapist who speaks the patient’s language, so there are options for that, including virtual appointments, using speakerphone, or having an interpreter. Technology such as Google Translate and similar apps are options as well, and would have to be arranged in advance.

“Typically, if there’s going to be some type of language barrier issue, it’s discussed beforehand, and a family member that is bilingual can accompany the patient at the physical therapy office for the appointments,” Henry said. “If there is no family member available to help, a plan would need to be worked out so the patient can communicate with the therapist.”

Many outpatient clinics will have a website that includes bios and photos of their therapists, giving patients an opportunity to search for a therapist who may share a similar language or ethnic origin. “Patients are shopping around 100 percent,” said Henry. “There is no doubt about it. Patients want to know the therapist’s background and experience so they can get a sense of their expertise.”

Some physical therapists have a mobile practice in which they go to a patient’s home, and it’s considered outpatient care, not home care. “This is a win-win situation because the therapist does not have to pay rent or maintain a space, and the patient can focus on their recovery without having to leave their home,” Henry said. “And, for the geriatric population, we often treat functional issues such as specific problems that are in their house, such as stairs, so whether or not a therapist can come to the house is a very important part of choosing the right therapist.”

“Seeking out a mobile practice would be the most beneficial,” said Henry, “and when the issue is related to balance and falls, the therapist and the patient know that it can be really beneficial to see the patient’s home environment and make recommendations about how to modify their environment to reduce their risk for falls.”

Technology such as FaceTime and the ability of patients to take photos on their cell phones is really helpful, but they can never replace having a therapist in the patient’s home to make a clear assessment of what the issues are and how to address them. “Honestly, that’s where patients are going to be doing their home exercise programs, so it’s really good for physical therapists to know the layout of their home,” said Henry.

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