2007-04-20 / Columnists

Eye On Physical Therapy

Commentary By Dr. Tim Rohrs

Commentary By Dr. Tim Rohrs

It's that time of year when I am contacted by students looking for summer work. Many are looking to complete the requisite hours needed to gain acceptance into a physical therapy program. Others are looking to volunteer to learn more about the physical therapy profession. Lastly there are parents looking to gain employment for their child. With that in mind I decided to answer some of the more frequently asked questions.

"What is physical therapy?" According to the New York State practice act, Article 136 specifically, that governs the professions, it is "The evaluation, treatment or prevention of disability, injury, disease, or other condition of health using physical, chemical, and mechanical means including, but not limited to heat, cold, light, air, water, sound, electricity, massage, mobilization, and therapeutic exercise with or without assistive devices, and the performance and interpretation of tests and measurements to assess pathophysiological, pathomechanical, and developmental deficits of human systems to determine treatment, and assist in diagnosis and prognosis."

"What does that mean?" Physical therapists evaluate joints, muscles, and connective tissues for dysfunction. Those dysfunctions may include muscle weakness, spasm, muscle imbalance, flexibility issues, joint stiffness, neurological deficits and functional limitations.

One of my first professors, in an introductory course, once instructed, "you may have never heard of a particular diagnosis but remember this, stretch what is tight and strengthen what is weak." That is what physical therapists do.

"What about those machines, ultrasound and electric stimulation etc?" Many people confuse those machines for the physical therapy treatment. If we look one paragraph up, and our job is to stretch what is tight and strengthen what is weak, then those modalities or machines, help accomplish that. Many people seek treatment because they are experiencing pain. These machines can help decrease inflammation, spasm and pain. They DO NOT fix the problem but can help to relieve some pain temporarily to allow the stretching and strengthening to take place.

"What about massage and mobilization?" Again, we use those manual techniques to achieve our goal. That goal is to bring the joint or joints in question as close to textbook "normal" as possible. Massage can help relax muscle spasm or decrease edema and swelling. Mobilization applies a force directly to a joint to increase its mobility and motion.

"Where do physical therapists work?" Therapists work in a wide variety of settings. 1. In-patient hospital care where they help get post surgical patients out of bed and get them walking again. 2. Rehab settings for traumatic brain injuries such as where Christopher Reeves went. 3. Grammar and middle schools working with children with cerebral palsy, Down's syndrome, and autism. 4. Cardiac rehab center for patients that have had heart surgery. 5. Outpatient clinics where patients are treated for numerous sports injuries, motor vehicle accidents and arthritis.

"How do you become a physical therapist ?" Each school has its own requirements. You can find a list of programs that offer either a Master's or Doctorate Degree Program at the New York Physical Therapy Association website at www.nypta.org/education/prog rams/htm In general, you will need to complete a Bachelors Degree that fulfills the prerequisites of the physical therapy program you are interested in. Most of these requirements include two semesters each of anatomy and physiology, chemistry, physics, biology, at least nine credits of psychology, six credits of English, statistics and pre-calculus.

Again, each program is slightly different and has different requirements. Most programs require that you work or volunteer anywhere from 100 to 250 hours in the profession. Lastly, CPR and basic first aide certification is needed.

"How much do physical therapists earn?" Depending on the practice setting, a PT can earn from $45,000 per year as a new graduate, up to $75,000 or $80,000. The state in which you reside will also dictate the salary. In rural areas, where therapists are in short supply, salaries may be higher. Many hospitals out of NYS have been known to offer $5,000 to $7,500 sign-on bonuses and moving expenses to entice therapists to work in their hospital.

These facilities usually have you sign a contract guaranteeing that you will work for a minimum of three to four years.

If you have been thinking about a career in physical therapy, your best bet is to volunteer in your local hospital's physical therapy department or an outpatient private practice. I have had many students over the years that thought they wanted a career as a therapist, but once they volunteered they discovered that it was not for them.

Best to invest some time now doing your homework than to invest a lot of time and money only to discover you don't like it years down the road.

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