When Should I Go to a Physical Therapist?
A physical therapist should be your primary care provider for musculoskeletal and mobility related issues.
When I hear people talking about having aches and pains, they often talk about needing to go see their primary care doctor. However, if you're having these types of issues, you are probably much better off going to a physical therapist because a physical therapist often has a much deeper understanding of these issues than a primary care provider.
A physical therapist understands your anatomy and how tightness, weakness or altered mechanics can contribute to pain. And we also understand how to use movement and exercise or manual techniques to improve pain and movement quality. A physical therapist today graduates with a doctor a physical therapy degree. We have extensive training on how to treat muscle, joint, mobility and balance issues.
The scope of things that your primary care provider needs to know is very very large and they just do not have the time or ability to have as deep an understanding of musculoskeletal issues as a physical therapist. And they often only have a limited amount of time to see you in a visit whereas a physical therapist can usually spend an hour on the evaluation to really help figure out what is really causing your pain.
This is supported by research studies on low back pain for example that show folks who see a physical therapist first instead of a primary care doctor have improved quality of life, take less pain medications and have reduce spending compared to those who see their doctor first.
Physical therapists are also trained to be able to identify when you have an issue that would require a referral to your physician or that would require imaging. Imaging like x-rays or MRIs can be a double-edged sword. It can the case that people have things that would look bad on an x-ray or MRI but they have no pain. So it is very important that anything on an x-ray or MRI correlates to how you are doing functionally. Otherwise you could end up treating something that is on your x-ray or MRI but it's not actually the real cause of your pain or lack of mobility.
Nick Rech, PT, DPT, ATC, CSCS, CFL1
Nick is a physical therapist and owner of Rech Physio, a service that provides outpatient physical therapy in your home.