What Can a Physiotherapist Do For You?

Physiotherapy is becoming an increasingly popular method of treatment for various individuals. With a wide range of applications for patients, physiotherapists can assist with the management of chronic pain, acute injuries, old nagging injuries, as well as recovering from surgery and managing physical problems that naturally arise with age. 

That's a fairly broad explanation. In reality, whichever physiotherapist you visit will be somewhat specialized in a certain area. ​For example, if you just got out of surgery for a hip replacement, one of the first people that will attend to you afterwards is a physiotherapist, and this is typically something you don't need to actively seek out on your own. 

However, for more common problems and injuries such as chronic low back pain, knee injuries, or anything that you are trying to actively fix or manage with the help of medical professionals, it's always good to have an idea of what to expect before booking in to see someone. Here are a couple tips from my experiences with different physiotherapists. This article will focus more on the private practice setting, which are the settings that offer the help described in this paragraph.

Clinic Design​

This is something I never thought of until I visited multiple clinics. First, it's worth knowing that there are some larger clinics out there that are basically chains, and you may see the company name more than once. ​These clinics typically hire physiotherapists to work for them, and they are well versed in treating a variety of patients. 

Additionally, there are also private clinics that are owned by the physiotherapists who are working at that same clinic. You won't see separate franchises, but that doesn't mean these physiotherapists are not well established in their professions. Here are some pros and cons to each style of clinic design. There may be some crossover as well, but you will see what I mean in a moment.

One Patient vs Multiple Patients

Many private physiotherapy clinics, maybe more than half, ​adopt a more "communal" style. What I mean by this is that when you are admitted and ready to be seen by a physiotherapist, you will be taken to a treatment bed and the physiotherapists will greet you, look over your injury information, ask yo questions related to this and your medical history, and will proceed to perform an assessment to try and determine the exact injury or issue at play. 

This physiotherapist may also have 1-3 other patients that they are currently treating. While they are seeing you, the other patients​ are either performing rehabilitative exercises or stretches, they may be hooked up to equipment treating a particular problem (for example, they may be electrically stimulating a muscle to increase blood flow to the area, and in this case, the physiotherapist can often leave them to that for a little while), or the other patients may simply be waiting. In any case, the physiotherapist will be qualified to treat you, but here are some pros and cons to keep in mind about this particular clinic design. 

Pros

  • Usually on the affordable side for physiotherapy.
  • Common and usually easy to find.
  • More staff may lead to longer hours of operation.

Cons

  • The appointment itself may take longer if the physiotherapist is looking after other patients as well.
  • Close proximity to other patients, sometimes within earshot if not separated by walls.
  • The physiotherapist may appear in a rush - you may not feel like you are receiving the attention you deserve.

Consensus

To be honest, I never came across what I would consider a bad physiotherapist. That said, I do prefer the clinic settings where you have your own room and the physiotherapist spends the entire time with you, whether it be a 45 minute assessment or 30 minute treatment, or whatever it is you need to book in for. I just find they are more focused in this setting and willing to really investigate what the problem could be. 

For example, I was going to a physiotherapy clinic on a university campus for a neck problem, and my 30 minute appointment would turn into more than an hour, which caused problems when I had a tight schedule. ​This is because the physiotherapist would often leave to help other people, and I would often be sitting there waiting for him to return. He still helped me out quite a bit, but I was putting a lot more time into it than I expected. 

When the same issue had flared up again, I decided to go to a different clinic - one where I was able to spend the entire assessment and treatment time with the physiotherapist in my own individual room. While it was a little more expensive, the fact that the physiotherapist was able to focus and think deeply about the problem and spend the entire time testing different things, this led to me receiving what I feel was better quality treatment. So while it was more expensive and a little further out of the way, I knew exactly how long I would be there for, and I knew I would have the physiotherapist's undivided attention the entire time. ​

I saw my doctor, should I see a physiotherapist as well?

​Depending on where you live and what your health coverage is like, you may or may not require a referral from your physician in order to visit a physiotherapist. Checking in with your doctor about this is never a bad idea, and often times they may suggest this as a supplemental course of action for treating your pain. 

In some cases, your doctor may identify the problem and begin to treat it, which is great. However, if the problem persists, then it could be worth seeing a physiotherapist for another opinion. This isn't to say your doctor cannot diagnose or treat you properly, but when they are so limited on time and the appointments are so short, they often have to treat based on what is most likely the problem. 

Here's an example of when this could be a little variable. One of my family members, who was in their 60's, went to see the doctor about consistent and significant pain around the hip area. The visit was rather quick, but al the signs and symptoms pointed towards bursitis, which is fairly common and is a relatively easy fix (a bursa is a fluid-filled sac in and around joints that reduces friction for structures like tendons and muscles to move around properly).

After treatment to reduce the inflammation in the bursa, the patient's pain was reduced a little bit, but quickly returned and became just as consistent as before. The next step they took was to visit a physiotherapist. After spending a much longer period of time ​being assessed, which involved moving the leg around in many different directions, pushing on different parts, etc, it was determined that the problem was not the bursa, but instead, a tendon that attached into the hip. The treatment for this was very successful. 

Now, we're not saying that the doctor was wrong to try and treat for bursitis, but they only had so much information from the quick visit, and 9 times out of 10, they would have been correct anyway.​ However, given the physiotherapist specialized much more thoroughly in orthopedic issues, was up on the literature, and was able to spend a lot more time with the patient, they were able to identify the issue as something quite a bit different. Therefore, we would always consider the two to be complementary of each other, and when seen by both, you have a good chance of identifying and treating the injury properly.

Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is a huge issue in all around the globe. Typically, chronic pain cannot be fully resolved, but rather, it just has to be managed as best as possible. One of the first courses of action taken in North America is the prescription of pharmaceutical medications, for example, opioids. While these have their time and place, the tendency for our regions to overprescribe has led to dependence, side effects, and in the very worst case, overdoses. 

Physiotherapists are now itching to help people with chronic pain. Their methods offer an alternative, or at the very least a supplement, to pharmaceutical ​medications that can often be just as effective for pain management. Additionally, treatment often involves some form of physical activity, whether it be gentle stretching, or some kind of manual therapy like massage or myofascial release that may be a little more painful, but worth it in the long run. This type of treatment is a little more conducive to mental health, as it promotes self-management and staying active, something that has been shown to be highly beneficial. 

The take-away message here is that if you suffer from chronic pain, particularly common types of ailments like low back pain or pain from osteoarthritis, visiting a physiotherapist is often a great idea. If the treatment that is necessary is outside of their expertise, they will simply tell you that and provide as much additional info for you as they can. ​In most cases, they can often help quite a bit, and this can be a great alternative to other medications. Just know that this is a potential option for you.

Education

One physiotherapist that was treating my neck injury mentioned to me that just because I felt great leaving at the end of one of my sessions, that didn't mean I was "fixed". Much of my ailment stemmed from factors like poor posture, history of injury, and ergonomics. In addition to physically treating my neck, the physiotherapist offered guidance along the way for how I could help myself, thus allowing me to prevent future occurrences of injury, or at least minimize the risk as much as possible. Many of the things they mentioned were simply adjustments to my lifestyle or routine that were really easy to do, but something I wouldn't have thought about otherwise. Therefore, the education that you can receive during treatment can be highly beneficial, sometimes even more beneficial than the treatment itself!

Conclusion

The main point of this article is to really help you be more aware of what a physiotherapist can offer you and the general types of things they can help with. The profession is becoming increasingly technical and the benefits of physiotherapy continue to reveal themselves. While it may not be necessary for everyone, simply calling a clinic or going in for one single assessment can allow you to explore your options and further inform you about what may be the best course of action for your particular ailment.

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