Role of the Physical Therapist in the Management of Rheumatic Disease

physical therapist

The Physical Therapist (PT) can help patients of all ages manage arthritis pain, promote mobility and day-to-day function, and stay active and independent in home, work, school, community and leisure settings.

What does the Physical Therapist do?

Physical therapists take a patient history and examine:

  • physical and functional status, including walking or ambulation, falls risk, self care skills, posture, and body mechanics
  • joints and supporting muscles and soft tissues
  • neuromuscular and cardiopulmonary (heart and lungs) systems
  • need for therapeutic exercise and ability to perform an exercise program
  • physical activity level
  • need for special equipment or devices such as modified footwear, splints, or walking aids

After the examination, the PT works with the patient to develop shared treatment goals and an individualized treatment plan. Treatment may include patient and family education, specific therapeutic interventions such as manual (hands on) techniques, physical modalities, and therapeutic exercise. The PT teaches self-management skills that help patients decide on appropriate treatment options and encourage independence in daily activities, including self-care, walking, transfers such as up from a chair or toilet, in and out of the bathtub, and using public and private transportation. Physical modalities such as heat, cold, electrical therapy, and hydrotherapy can be used to decrease pain, muscle spasm, and inflammation and prepare the patient for exercise and activity. Individualized and progressive therapeutic exercises are prescribed to improve a patient’s muscle strength, joint range of motion, balance, cardiopulmonary function and overall activity level. The PT will teach the patient how to monitor and adjust the exercise program according to pain, disease activity and response to treatment. Some PTs may conduct clinical research and have leadership roles that involve quality improvement and program planning and evaluation.

Where does the Physical Therapist work?

The PT provides care in a variety of settings, including hospitals, outpatient clinics, private practices, rehabilitation centers, schools, nursing homes, work places, home health agencies and the community. In 48 states, patients have direct access to a PT. In the remaining states, patients may be referred to a PT by other health care providers for consultation and treatment. A health care provider’s referral may be required by certain third party payers for reimbursement of PT services.

What kind of training does a Physical Therapist have?

Physical therapists are licensed by the state in which they practice. Currently, more than 90% of accredited university PT education programs in the US offer a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree. A small number of universities require at least a master’s degree as an entry-level educational requirement. The Commission on the Accreditation of Physical Therapy Education must accredit all educational programs. After graduation, PTs must pass a national certification exam to practice. Physical therapists may also pursue advanced training to specialize in eight health care areas including orthopaedics, geriatrics and women’s health.

This information is provided for general education only. Individuals should consult a qualified health care provider for professional medical advice, diagnoses and treatment of a medical or health condition.

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