There are many reasons to see a physical therapist (PT). “One of the overarching themes is that we can help people manage pain, improve function, and get their lives back,” said Teresa Bisson, PT, DPT, NCS, ATP. “Physical therapy is a much broader specialty than most people realize. My expertise, for example, is in neurologic physical therapy, so I work with people who have different neurological conditions such as stroke, brain or spinal cord injury, or multiple sclerosis.”

Physical therapists work with children and adults across their lifespan and can help them in many ways, according to Dr. Bisson. “We guide people as they recover from surgery or injury, manage the effects of cancer treatments, or improve their movement when faced with a developmental or neurological condition,” she said. “We are working now with a lot of people experiencing the after-effects of COVID-19.” 

Teresa Bisson, PT, DPT, NCS, ATP

Highly individualized
Modern physical therapy is highly individualized, according to Dr. Bisson (pictured at left). “We do a comprehensive evaluation that can include movement and exercise, which is our main treatment modality,” she said. “We also offer manual therapy, ultrasound, heat, cold, and electrical stimulation. A big piece of what we do is analyze a person’s movement to identify patterns that may contribute to their pain, helping them overcome those patterns as well as improving their strength, range of motion, and balance.”

People may not be aware that a physical therapist can help them, or their physician hasn’t helped them understand the benefits of seeing one. “We’re still trying to educate people about the fact that physical therapists are primary care providers, and their services can be accessed directly,” said Dr. Bisson.

Broad capabilities
One of the biggest misperceptions about physical therapy is that it just includes massage and ultrasound. “There is also a belief that physical therapists only work with athletes or with those who have orthopedic conditions such as joint and back pain,” said Dr. Bisson. “We have a broad range of capabilities and serve many different kinds of patients with many different kinds of conditions.”

When treating their patients, physical therapists collaborate with other rehabilitation professionals such as occupational, speech, and recreation therapists, neurologists, nursing staff, case managers, and social workers. “I interact with a broad team to meet my patient’s needs,” said Dr. Bisson.

The patient’s role in physical therapy is one of active participation. “Physical therapy works best when it’s approached as a collaboration,” said Dr. Bisson. “It’s important for me to understand the person in front of me – what matters to them and what they need or want to get out of PT – to help shape their treatment for them specifically. I can only do that if they’re willing to participate with me.”

Notable shifts
When Dr. Bisson thinks about the future of physical therapy care, she sees notable shifts in the use of technology. “Virtual reality is one of the big trends in a number of different practice areas in physical therapy,” she said. “The technology for movement assessment is also improving. We not only use our hands and eyes to assess movement, but also video technology and programs that help us get even more detail.”

In the past few years, providers have also shifted from the traditional PT approach of prescribing specific exercises focused on mastering one activity at a time. “The research is pushing us toward more intensive training,” said Dr. Bisson. “When working with our neurologic patients, we are encouraging them to be as mobile and active as they can be. We’re becoming increasingly aware of the benefits of doing that.”

Outstanding education program
The University of Minnesota is an excellent place to get physical therapy for several reasons, noted Dr. Bisson, who has been at the U for seven years. “We have an outstanding physical therapy education program, for one,” she said. “It’s highly rated and does a great job of training new practitioners. We are also focused on high quality, patient-centered care that is based on evidence. That means we use the best knowledge available to us to help our patients.”

For more information about why you might want to see a physical therapist, the American Physical Therapy Association created ChoosePT. The site helps you to learn about conditions that would benefit from physical therapy and can assist you in locating a therapist near you.