An inside look into physiotherapy

May 11, 2021

Physiotherapy can help improve strength, reduce pain and build better exercise habits, among many other benefits. Physiotherapists can play a significant role in your health and wellness.

But the difference between physiotherapy, athletic therapy, chiropractic and massage therapy isn't always clear. What is physiotherapy exactly, and what can it do for you?

What is physiotherapy?

Physiotherapists work with their clients to improve mobility, well-being and function, getting them moving in a healthy way. Physiotherapists relieve symptoms while also treating them at the source through physical rehabilitation, injury prevention and health and fitness.

"There are so many aspects to physio, because we work in private practice, we work in general and rehab hospitals, community health centres, residential and assisted living facilities, homecare, workplaces and schools," says Rickie Walkden, director and senior therapist at the Sport Manitoba Clinic.

Physiotherapists are experts at ensuring people in pain can get back to their regular movements and activities. They treat a variety of conditions, but the most common include sprains, strains, tears, osteoarthritis and joint-specific pain.

According to Walkden, there is some overlap between physiotherapists and athletic therapists, but they're two distinct specialties. Athletic therapists do on-field management, while physiotherapists don't, she says. Athletic therapists tend to focus on more sport-oriented activities, whereas physiotherapists lean toward more day-to-day activities- but physiotherapists still work with athletes, and athletic therapists still work with everyday movements. Physiotherapists are also regulated differently than athletic therapists.

Physiotherapy can also sometimes be lumped in with chiropractic and massage therapy, but there's a distinct difference- both chiropractic and massage focus on symptom relief, while physiotherapy works to treat the source, Walkden says.

Physiotherapy misconceptions

There are several popular misconceptions around physiotherapy, according to Walkden.

"I think there's a certain percentage of our population that thinks we're massage therapists and that we only do what a doctor says," she says.

In fact, Manitoba physiotherapists have direct access to patients, meaning they don't need a referral from a physician.

"[Physicians] trust the fact that with our education and our clinical training, that if something needs to be seen by a physician or something that's out of scope, that we're able to recognize that and refer back so that we're not treating things that we shouldn't be."

Another common misconception is that physiotherapists don't have as much education as they do.

On top of a bachelor's degree (usually in kinesiology), Manitoba physiotherapists must complete a two-year Master's degree and a physiotherapy competency examination (PCE) to register as a physiotherapist in Manitoba.

Physiotherapy is also much more involved than just showing up for a massage or an ultrasound. When a patient comes in for an assessment and diagnosis, they have to be active participants in the healing process. On top of performing activities during physiotherapy sessions, patients have to put the work in and do exercises at home. Physiotherapists also work with patients to help them understand the mechanics behind the exercises and how specifically they'll improve outcomes.

"They know why they're doing their exercises, so it motivates them," says Walkden. "Understanding why they're doing them is huge."

What to look for in a physiotherapist

"In terms of private practice, you want someone who is going to communicate with you; who is going to educate you about your diagnosis and your plan, and participates in reassessment," says Walkden.

"You want to make sure that there's continuity of care, that you're seeing the same person each time, rather than seeing someone different," she adds, noting that being referred to another physiotherapist with a specialty is a common exception.

May is National Physiotherapy Month, a time to celebrate everything that physiotherapists do for their clients. To find a physiotherapist in your area, use the Find A Physio tool on the Manitoba Physiotherapist Association's website.

If you have Manitoba Blue Cross coverage, you can check whether physiotherapy is covered under your plan on your mybluecross account.

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