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Physical therapists provide services to restore function, improve mobility, relieve pain, and prevent or limit permanent physical disabilities among those suffering from injuries, disabilities, or disease.
Organized physical therapy began during World War I with 800 reconstruction aides. Today there are more than 80,000 licensed physical therapists in the United States.
Physical therapists treat patients with a variety of health conditions and diseases including accident victims and individuals with disabling conditions such as low back pain, arthritis, heart disease, fractures, head injuries, and cerebral palsy.
In an effort to restore, maintain, and promote overall fitness and health, physical therapists examine patients' medical histories, as well as test and measure patients' strength, range of motion, balance, coordination, posture, muscle performance, respiration, and motor function. Physical therapists determine patients' ability to be independent and reintegrate into the community or workplace. Based on a patient's medical history and test results, physical therapists develop treatment plans that describe treatment strategy, purpose, and anticipated outcome.
A physical therapist's treatment often includes exercise for patients who have been immobilized or who lack flexibility, strength, or endurance. As part of the treatment, physical therapists encourage patients to improve flexibility, range of motion, strength, balance, coordination, and endurance. The goal is to improve an individual's function at work and home.
Physical therapists may use electrical stimulation, hot packs, cold compresses, or ultrasound to relieve pain and reduce swelling. They may use traction or deep-tissue massage to relieve pain. Therapists also teach patients to use assistive and adaptive devices including crutches, prostheses, and wheelchairs. They may also show patients how to perform exercises to do at home.
During treatment, physical therapists document the patient's progress, conduct periodic examinations, and modify treatments when necessary. Physical therapists rely on this documentation to track the patient's progress and identify areas requiring more or less attention.
Author Info: Bill Asenjo MS, CRC, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit, Gale Encyclopedia of Nursing and Allied Health, 2002
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