Physical Therapy Mythbusters

Learn the truth behind common physical therapy myths!

Woman rubs an oil lamp
Get the truth about physical therapy. Peter Dazeley, Getty Images

The popular television program Mythbusters on the Discovery channel features four hosts who prove (or debunk) common myths and urban legends using scientific methods mixed with a little bit of fun. Hot topics such as "Is shooting fish in a barrel easy?" and "Are elephants really afraid of mice?" are often featured.

If you have been to physical therapy, perhaps you may have heard some whispers in the clinic about some common myths about the profession.

Or you may have a specific condition like knee pain, and a friend or family member gave you some free advice to treat it and you're not sure if the advice is sound or just a myth.

Here are some common physical therapy myths with some logical answers to help you get the truth about physical therapy and rehabilitation.

  1. Physical therapists do not get along with chiropractors. For some reason, many people think that physical therapists and chiropractors do not get along. There is some sort of unspoken battle between the two professions where P.T.'s feel that chiropractors are nothing but back snappers, and chiropractors feel that therapists are not advanced enough in their training.

    Nothing could be further than the truth. The truth is that both physical therapy exercises and chiropractic manipulations have been proven to be effective in the treatment of conditions like low back pain and neck pain. Sure, there are some bad chiropractors who crack a lot of backs and work on volume alone. But there are also bad physical therapists who treat many patients at once and who offer little personal care and attention.

    Most physical therapists and chiropractors are a lot alike. They both want to help their patients live healthy lifestyles. (Personally, I feel that PT's are better people, but I'm biased.)

    Bottom line: Physical therapists and chiropractors most often get along just fine.

  1. If you have low back pain, you must have a weak core. Sometimes weakness in your core and hip muscles may contribute to low back pain. But sometimes low back pain may require simple exercises that focus on a range of motion (ROM) and not strength to get better. Often, postural correction alone is needed to help improve low back pain. Bottom line: If you have low back pain, be sure to see your doctor or physical therapist to help decide on the best course of action.
  1. Physical therapists never get hurt themselves. Don't be surprised if you go to physical therapy and your therapist needs to take a two-minute break to stretch his hip. "What?" you say. "Physical therapists never get hurt!"

    Wrong!

    Physical therapists are people, and people get hurt. Plus, many physical therapists are very active people who live active lifestyles. Participation in high-level athletics and recreation is bound to cause an injury sooner or later.

    Bottom line: your physical therapist is a human being just like you, and he or she is subject to the same injuries that you may face. The only difference is that your P.T. knows how to treat himself correctly to quickly and safely return to normal functional mobility.

  2. Physical therapy can "fix" everything. Nope. Your physical therapist is trained to evaluate and assess your problem. He or she can prescribe specific treatments and exercises to help try to change your condition in a positive way. But sometimes your P.T. may assess that physical therapy is not the right treatment for you. Sometimes you may really try to get better, but the damage to your body is too great and physical therapy is ineffective at improving your condition.

    Bottom line: Your physical therapist will try his best, but not every outcome is a positive one in physical therapy.

  1. Knee pain is caused by weak quadriceps and hamstrings. If you have knee pain or are suffering from a condition like iliotibial band friction syndrome (ITBS) or patellofemoral stress syndrome (PFSS), you may feel like the muscles around your knee are weak. Historically, physical therapy management of knee pain would focus on those muscle groups. The quads and hamstrings are still involved in the treatment of ITBS and PFSS, but quite a bit of research now indicates that weakness in your hips may also be a factor in your knee pain.

    Bottom line: While some attention should be paid to your quads and hamstrings to treat knee pain, hip strengthening exercises may be necessary to appropriately treat your knee pain. See your physical therapist to help you decide on the best course of treatment.

  2. If your insurance company won't pay, you cannot attend physical therapy. If you live in America, chances are that you have private insurance or government sponsored Medicare or Medicaid insurance to help you pay for your healthcare. Sometimes, your insurance company will not pay for physical therapy services. Therefore, you cannot attend physical therapy, right?

    Wrong!

    If your insurance company won't cover physical therapy services, your P.T. can still treat you, but you may have to pay an out-of-pocket expense. This can be quite costly. But remember that your physical therapist is most likely a pretty nice person, and he or she may allow you to make monthly payments against your physical therapy bill. You may also be allowed to pay a discounted rate if you can prove financial hardship.

    Bottom line: Your physical therapist will often work with you to make sure you have access to physical therapy services and that the overall expense is something that you can manage.

  3. Your physical therapist lives at the clinic. If you see your physical therapist at the grocery store, do not panic. If you spot your physical therapist at the movies, do not be surprised. If your physical therapist is at the park with her family, don't be distressed.

    For obvious reasons, people associate physical therapists with physical therapy clinics. But your physical therapist probably also has a family, a house, a car, and a personal life outside of the clinic.

    Keep it in mind that if you see your physical therapist out and about, he or she may not want to talk shop with you. While your shoulder pain is very important, your therapist probably does not want to worry too much about it when he is out to dinner with his family.

    Bottom line: Physical therapists are people too. Keep the clinical talk in the clinic.

If you are attending physical therapy and are curious about any of these, or any other, physical therapy myths, be sure to ask your physical therapist about the truth. He or she is the best resource to be your personal physical therapy mythbuster.

Continue Reading