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All About Physical Therapists

Aug 17, 2007
Physical therapy is a broad sphere of medical practice that encompasses many needs and scenarios. Simply put, a physical therapist provides the service to the patient of helping him or her achieve, maintain, or restore maximum movement and functional ability. The patient and why they need physical therapy can be as vast as medicine itself. The old and infirm need assistance in maintaining movement. The injured need therapy to recover movement. Those born with a physical or neurological handicap need therapy to develop movement.

Just some of the conditions which a physical therapist may help with include: back and neck pain, spinal and joint conditions such as arthritis, biomechanical problems and muscular control, problems affecting children such as cerebral palsy and spina bifida, heart and lung conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and pneumonia, sport-related injuries, stress incontinence, and neurological conditions such as stroke and multiple sclerosis.

Physical therapists usually specialize in a specific field. Just like a doctor, a physical therapist is a certified expert - in the United States requiring four years of college with an eye towards the specialty. Not many people realize this, because to watch a physical therapist work, you might at frst mistake them for a coach or a counselor.

In fact, coaching and counseling are a great deal of what physical therapy is all about. Physical therapists work in a very active role with the patient, guiding them through exercises designed to help build the patient's mobility. They may be working on the track or the gym with a sports injury case, in a hospital coaxing a stroke survivor to take their first few steps with a walker, or in a swimming pool using the water's buoyancy to help a recovering accident victim with a fractured pelvis to learn to walk again.

History
Physical therapy as a recognized profession goes all the way back to ancient China, though in that point in history it was more like a massage business. Physical therapists came into their first mass use in World War two, when soldiers coming home with spinal injuries provided new challenges to the profession. Orthopedic hospitals and chest clinics for veterans soon sprang up, with physical therapists running the show.

In many countries, the profession of physical therapy has grown to become the largest allied health profession, in third place only behind medicine and nursing in the number of graduating health care students.

Working with disabled children
Children are born with a mobility problem for many reasons. For just one example, there's cerebral palsy. A baby born with cerebral palsy has a very good chance of being able to partially recover by the time of adulthood. This is due to the brain's ability to patch itself by growing new neurons. But in order for those neurons to form in the first place, the child must have stimulus.

They say that riding a bike is something that once you learn how, you never forget. This actually applies to all mobile activities. Anything from crawling to surfing is a learned set of muscular co-ordination reflexes, and to develop them, we have to practice. Once the brain has learned how to guide the body through a set of motions, new pathways of neurons are formed in the brain to record the learned behavior. The act of learning an activity is actually one of providing physical stimulation to the body, which in turn is used by the brain as raw material to build a learned behavior from.

A physical therapist working with a disabled child who cannot crawl, for instance, may start by placing the child on his belly on a soft inflated ball. With just the feet and hands touching the floor and without the necessity to support the bodies entire weight on the limbs yet, the child can move themselves around on the ball by pushing against the floor with their hands and feet. Later the ball might be replaced with a padded board on wheels. Just like training wheels on a bike, the motion is practiced in gradual steps until the child can both develop the muscle tone and learn the gross motor skills necessary to carry out the task.

Water walking
Similarly, an older patient with a mobility problem due to a recent injury or stroke might need to teach their body how to walk again. By suspending their body in a shallow pool with a floatation vest on, they can walk around on the surface of the pool bottom and their body's weight is mostly carried by the water. In this way the legs and feet can rebuild muscle tone and the brain can learn to remap those neurons that may have been damaged or forgotten.

Tai Chi and Pilates
Tai Chi, a "soft" Chinese martial art, has made some popular gains in senior patrons of physical therapists. The gentle, graceful movements and slow pacing are a deliberate effort to force the body and mind to focus on it's mobility. As opposed to the "training wheels" model, this is more of a "slow and steady" model, but even those the Tai Chi class may look like slow-motion aerobics, the benefits are staggering.

Researchers have found that long-term Tai Chi practice had favorable effects on the skills of balance control, flexibility and cardiovascular fitness and helped reduce the risk of falls in elders. The studies also reported reduced pain, stress and anxiety in healthy subjects who took Tai Chi. Other studies have indicated improved cardiovascular and respiratory function in healthy subjects along with those who had undergone coronary artery bypass surgery.

Pilates is an exercise regimen with very different roots in Europe and America instead of the Far East, but with similar goals in mind. The inventor of this exercise named it "Contrology", which refers to the way the method encourages the use of the mind to control the muscles. It is an exercise program that focuses on the core postural muscles that help keep the body balanced and are essential to providing support for the delicate muscles of the spine. In particular, Pilates teaches an awareness of breath and alignment of the spine, and strengthens the deep torso muscles which are important to help alleviate and prevent back pain.

There's more to physical therapy than meets the mind. Indeed, the benefit is mostly applied in the mind, although physical therapists speak almost as if the body had a mind of it's own, which the brain merely oversees. In a way, a physical therapist can be seen as a "brain programmer" - or re-programmer! No matter what your course of medical treatment in life, you're almost bound to require the services of a physical therapist at one point or another in your life.
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