There are many misconceptions about what a physical therapist (PT) does and sometimes they are an undervalued however always an important part of a health care team. This article will give you insight and understanding into the many different areas in which they work. From injuries on the football field to chronic lung conditions to rehabilitation following a severe head injury, a physical therapist will help you recover and occasionally could save your life.

So what do physical therapists do? Briefly, they are licensed allied health professionals that assess, diagnose and treat all age groups who have disabilities, impairments, injuries or medical conditions that limit their physical ability to perform normal everyday activities. Through systematic individual assessment, a physical therapist can develop a treatment plan to help improve movement, flexibility, strength, balance and function as well as reducing pain and disability. PTs work in many different settings, from the emergency department and intensive care unit in hospitals to sporting fields, private practices, schools, nursing homes, rehabilitation centres, corporate centres and community health centres. They also play a role in the promotion of healthy lifestyles and prevention of declining function and mobility in the elderly.

Although the general population believes physical therapy is mostly treatment of high profile athletes or in a clinic setting, it might surprise you that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 60% of physical therapists work in the hospital setting. They work closely with doctors, nurses, occupational therapist, speech pathologists, exercise scientists and dietitians to provide the best possible care for each patient. You will find a physiotherapist in most wards of the hospital, including orthopaedic, neurological, cardiorespiratory, rehabilitation, stroke unit, emergency, ICU, palliative care, pediatric, surgical and general medical. One requirement for discharging from the hospital is the ability to demonstrate you are safe on your feet and will manage at home. Generally many patients become weak and unsteady after a hospital admission so doctors rely on the physical therapist to perform a mobility assessment to give you the OK before you are allowed to go home.

Some interesting and not as well known areas of practice for physical therapists are in the ICU, working with amputees and stroke rehabilitation. In ICU, PTs are an integral part of the medical team and are involved in airway management and function of unconscious and incapacitated patients. These patients are generally connected to ventilators and are unable to cough so the PT might manually hyper inflate the lungs and use medical suction to clear any sputum preventing life threatening respiratory infections. Another area of interest is working with amputees to assist in the development of prosthetic limbs, preservation of strength in the remaining muscles, prescribing mobility aids and teaching the patient how to walk using a prosthetic limb. Early intervention of physical therapy after a stroke can have a great impact on the recovery process. PTs follow a stroke patient through rehabilitation process from teaching someone how to sit and reach right through to walking independently and returning safely into the community. Then once in the community, physical therapists are involved in falls prevention and health promotion activities to try and prevent re admission of patients to hospital.

It is difficult to label exactly what physical therapists do because there are so many different areas and specialties. Hopefully you have a better understanding of what a physical therapist does other than working with athletes and sporting injuries, but really this article represents the tip of the iceberg.

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