October is National Physical Therapy Month, which is recognized and celebrated by physical therapists throughout the country every year. The goal of the campaign is to increase awareness of the important role physical therapists play in reducing pain, improving mobility, and encouraging a healthy lifestyle in patients. In honor of this important month, we’d like to educate our readers on some of the most important characteristics of our practice.
Physical therapists are experts in the way the body moves. When patients come to us with an injury or painful condition, we carefully identify the source of the problem and then create an individualized program that targets the patient’s impairments and limitations. Through this process, we help patients experience reductions in pain and gradually regain their ability to move and function similarly to original levels.
Although more people are now becoming aware of the numerous benefits afforded by physical therapy, several mistaken beliefs about the practice persist. Therefore, in honor of National Physical Therapy Month, here are seven common myths and misconceptions about physical therapy and the truths behind them.
7 common myths about physical therapy
- You need a referral to see a physical therapist: A recent survey found that 70% of people think a referral or prescription is required to be evaluated by a physical therapist. In fact, all 50 states and Washington, D.C. allow an evaluation without a referral under what’s called direct access to physical therapy.
- Physical therapy is painful: Physical therapists try to minimize your pain and discomfort—including chronic or long–term pain. They work within your pain threshold to help you heal, restoring your movement and function in the process. Although some pain will be part of the process, therapists will always work to keep this to a minimum.
- Physical therapy is only for injuries and accidents: Physical therapy can effectively treat a wide range of conditions, many of which may not be due to a specific incident. It is also strongly recommended to condition the body and prevent future injuries.
- Any healthcare professional can perform physical therapy: Physical therapy can only be performed by a licensed physical therapist. Current physical therapists complete a three–year post–graduate degree program in which they earn a doctorate in physical therapy.
- Physical therapy isn't covered by insurance: Most insurance policies cover some amount of physical therapy, but beyond insurance coverage, physical therapy has proven to reduce costs by helping people avoid unnecessary imaging scans, surgery, and/or prescription drugs like opioids.
- Surgery is my only option: Numerous studies have shown that physical therapy can be just as effective as surgery, and that it may therefore serve as an alternative for many conditions, including degenerative disc disease and meniscus tears.
- I can do physical therapy myself: Although participation is key to a successful treatment plan, all patients need the expert care of a licensed physical therapist to guide them towards appropriate exercise and actions to address their problem.
The value of physical therapy over surgery and opioids
Physical therapy is not a magical cure–all that will immediately fix any physical problem, but it does have a vast range of applications and is appropriate for most painful conditions. Other popular treatment options for pain like surgery, injections, and pain medications (like opioids) may be tempting due to the prospect of immediate relief; however, research frequently shows that physical therapy often leads to similar—or better—outcomes while also saving patients money and time.
For example, one study showed that physical therapy was just as effective as surgery in the midterm and long term for reducing pain and improving function and flexibility in patients with various tendon disorders. Similarly, another study found only minimal differences after five years between patients treated surgically compared to those who had physical therapy for ACL tears. Surgery has great value that can often lead to positive outcomes, and it may be necessary in certain situations, but it does come with some potential downsides that should be acknowledged. These include high costs, long recovery times, and risks associated with the procedure. Physical therapy, on the other hand, is universally regarded as an affordable, safe intervention with minimal to no affiliated risks.
Physical therapy can also help patients avoid taking pain medications like opioids, which are a significant problem in the country today due to alarmingly high rates of addiction, overdose, and death. One study of 454 patients with low back pain found that those who participated in physical therapy had a lower chance of being prescribed opioids in the following year, while another found that those who saw a physical therapist early were 33% less likely to use narcotic analgesics like opioids and 50% less likely to receive non–surgical invasive procedures than patients who did not.
The earlier a patient sees a physical therapist, the more likely they are to experience positive outcomes with lower overall healthcare costs. This is exemplified in another study in which 308 patients with neck pain were divided into different groups depending on when they consulted a physical therapist: early (within 14 days), delayed (15–90 days), or late (91–364 days). Results showed that early physical therapy was associated with an average savings of $2,172 on healthcare costs over one year compared to late physical therapy, as well as a lower risk for patients being prescribed opioids, having a spinal injection, or undergoing an imaging test.
In our next three posts this month, we’ll continue to honor National Physical Therapy Month by showing you how physical therapy can serve as an important treatment tool for jaw pain, headaches, and vertigo, some less commonly reported conditions.