Thinking about seeing a physio? Have you been told “Physiotherapy will help that”? Are you still a little unsure about what a physiotherapist actually does? Well, you’re in the right place!

We’re here to answer all those questions and help you understand what physiotherapy is and whether it can help to heal what hurts so you can get on with living your life.

So what is a Physiotherapist?

A physiotherapist is a handy person to know! All Physiotherapists in Australia hold a university degree in Physiotherapy and must be registered by law with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA). AHPRA are agency that regulates the 16 health professions with nationally consistent legislation under the National Registration and Accreditation Scheme. This includes doctors, nurses, dentists and pharmacists as well as physiotherapists.

In addition to the base-level training a physiotherapist does at University, they commit to continuing professional development to ensure everything they do is supported by up to date scientific evidence. This protects the public from being receiving treatments that may be of no benefit or even harmful.

Physiotherapists work across a diverse range of areas in health care. The most commonly thought of areas are sports that might run out onto the footy field to assist a player with a knee injury or helping to fix your dodgy back.

But did you know:

• The physio is the person who will help you walk again after a stroke?
• The physiotherapist will be the ones who pummels your back when you have chest congestion from pneumonia?
• The physiotherapy department is where they call when a person in a coma isn’t maintaining sufficient oxygen levels in the ICU?
• It may be a physio not a doctor who assesses and treats your dislocated shoulder in the emergency department?
• It might be the physio who puts strategies in place to help your child learn better at school?

Physiotherapists are pretty humble people. Most days aren’t as glamourous as treating Raphael Nadal courtside at the Australian Open but physios can achieve all these amazing results for people and help them to get on with living their life.

In choosing Physiotherapy you can be sure you will receive high quality, safe and effective care for whatever ails you.

What is Physiotherapy?

Physiotherapy is defined by the Australian Physiotherapy Association as a “healthcare profession that assesses, diagnoses, treats, and works to prevent disease and disability through physical means.” Physiotherapists are highly skilled health professionals with extensive knowledge in anatomy and physiology that assist them to assess, diagnose and treat injury and illness. The ultimate aim is to provide rehabilitative treatment to help people to move and function better.

During a physio appointment you are assessed using a series of objective examination techniques. You may not realise it at the time but your physiotherapist is measuring and checking the amount of movement in your joints, the flexibility, strength and tone in your muscles, the posture and alignment of your spine, shoulder blades, pelvis, hips, knees and feet. They use this information as well as the information you tell them about your symptoms, pain and the goals you’re hoping to achieve to come up with an individually tailored physiotherapy treatment program.

This treatment program may see you coming to physiotherapy 2-3 times in one week for a short burst of treatment through to once a month over a longer time. It all depends on you – your injury or condition and what you’re hoping for in terms of recovery. For some, it’s pain relief as quickly as possible, for others it’s trying to find the root of a persistent or recurring problem and devising a plan to permanently resolve it.

Treatments that physiotherapists provide include:

• exercise programs to improve mobility and strengthen muscles
• joint manipulation and mobilisation to reduce pain and stiffness
• muscle re-education to improve control
• airway clearance techniques and breathing exercises
• soft tissue mobilisation (massage)
• acupuncture and dry needling
• hydrotherapy
• assistance with use of aids, splints, crutches, walking sticks and wheelchairs to help you move around.

Is it better to go to a doctor or physio first?

This is not an easy question to answer in the general sense, however Physiotherapists are first contact practitioners. This means you can come straight to see a physio about your problem without seeing your doctor first. Physiotherapists are trained and qualified to assess and diagnose your condition and will liaise with other providers that may be of benefit to your care.

For example, if you come in for a physiotherapy appointment for an ankle injury, your physio can refer you for an xray to ensure the ankle is not broken. They can also apply immobilisation like a moonboot or cast to help it heal as well as assisting with therapies to reduce swelling and bruising to aid in maintaining the mobility of your ankle. The physio will let you know whether you can put weight through the ankle and show you how to use crutches or walking aids if they are needed. The physiotherapist may also suggest you speak with your pharmacist or GP about medications that may assist with managing your pain.

Isn’t a physiotherapist just a glorified massage therapist?

We don’t like to knock other professions but it does make us a little disappointed when people ask this question. Firstly, physiotherapists are University graduates. To be able to be registered with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Authority physiotherapists complete 4-5years of rigorous academic study AND complete 1,200hours of supervised clinical practice.

Physiotherapists training qualifies them to make a diagnosis, whereas this is not within the scope of practice for a massage therapist. Even though a massage therapist may have years of experience, the level of training and requirements to continue ongoing training and education is extremely variable and largely dependent on the motivation of the therapist themselves. The lack of regulation in the industry means the quality of treatment you receive may be inconsistent and therefore whilst it might make you feel better anecdotally, the scientific evidence does not support the use of massage as a standalone treatment to fix an injury.

This doesn’t mean that massage therapy doesn’t have a place. In fact, many physiotherapists use massage techniques to manipulate the muscles, tendons, ligaments and connective tissues of the body to create relaxation, increase blood flow and create favourable conditions for the body to return to normal health after injury. The difference is that physiotherapy professionals use massage, amongst other treatment techniques to apply to a patient after a thorough assessment and diagnosis has been made. Physios select the best treatment techniques based on scientific evidences of their benefits, which may (or may not) include massage, and the effect they will have on your individual symptoms and the outcomes you are hoping to achieve.

So, physiotherapists and the physiotherapy profession is much more than just a glorification of massage therapy. In many cases long term use of more passive treatments like massage limits your recovery from injury as the approach focusses on treating the symptoms rather than addressing the cause like weak and imbalanced muscles or persistent postures adopted at work. Physiotherapy can offer symptom relief and so much more to help you feel better and keep you feeling that way long term.

Is physio for muscles and chiro for bones and joints?

This is a common misconception. The truth is that both physiotherapists and chiropractors treat musculoskeletal conditions – ie muscles, bones and joints. Both physios and chiros are university qualified, registered health practitioners with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Authority (AHPRA). Due to these similarities it is easy to see why physiotherapists and chiropractors are often confused.

Chiropractic and osteopathy are considered by many to be complementary or alternative medicine, and some critics point to a lack of scientific evidence. While the treatment techniques used by physiotherapists and chiropractors are quite similar in terms of using mobilisations or manipulation of the spine and other joints and soft tissues, where the two professions differ is how they look at the body and how they apply these treatments to injury and illness. A physio will look quite broadly at alignment and function of the body as a whole whereas chiropractic tends to look more centrally at the spine and attempts to attribute the benefits of spinal manipulation to a range of conditions that may fall out of the musculoskeletal realm. This is the basis for critic’s determination of a lack of evidence for chiropractic. For example, can it be proven that a spinal manipulation will assist a baby to sleep through the night?

Certainly, the premise that a spine can be “out”, a term commonly used by chiropractors is a concern for physiotherapists. Physios agree that a joint in the spine being out is a serious injury and is not as common as chiropractors would have you believe. If you have a true dislocation of your spine you need to be attended to medically and a physiotherapist would certainly not be performing a manipulation to put it back “in”. It is more likely that this is an easier way to explain the complex dysfunction that is back pain and possibly a scare to ensure patients adhere and comply with treatment. However, physiotherapists would prefer to help you to understand the symptoms you’re experiencing and work together with you on a treatment path toward the outcomes you want to achieve rather than scare you into coming back again and again.