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What Is a Physical Therapist?

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Updated January 07, 2007

Physical therapists are licensed professionals who work with people that have sustained disabilities, impairments, or limitations in their overall physical function. These deviations can be the result of disease, injury, or pathological processes. Physical therapists examine, evaluate, diagnose, develop treatment plans, and provide prognosis for each patient on an individual basis. Through the modalities of exercise, mobilization, manipulation, heat, cold, and electrical stimulation, physical therapists work to restore function, improve mobility, and decrease pain with the goal of re-establishing a patient’s prior functional level.

Physical therapists focus on the evaluation of strength, balance, range of motion, co-ordination, endurance, and posture of each individual patient. From this initial examination, the physical therapist then develops a treatment plan specific to correcting pertinent physical findings. Each patient’s individual treatment plan is geared toward reaching specific rehabilitation goals that are set by the therapist and the patient together as a team. However, the physical therapist will help in determining realistic goals through their knowledge of pathology and prognosis.

Rehabilitation strategies often involve specific exercises to stretch and strengthen muscles as well as to improve posture, balance, and endurance. Physical modalities including heat, cold, ultrasound, and electrical stimulation are also incorporated into most treatment sessions. Traction machines and massage are two other valuable techniques for functional improvement and pain reduction. Assistive devices such as crutches, canes, and walkers are often used to increase patient independence.

Over the course of the rehabilitation period physical therapists document progress, re-evaluate physical findings, and modify treatment strategies as appropriate. They often work as a team with a variety of other professionals including physicians, speech pathologists, occupational therapists and recreational therapists all with the same goal of reaching maximal patient functional independence.

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