Choose Your Physical Therapist Wisely

Injuries happen.  You were "oh so cool" doing your hero athlete move one minute and then face first in the dirt with a guaranteed trip to the emergency room the next.  Once the pain subsides, you're left with stiffness or tenderness and a prescription for a physical therapist. How do you choose the best one? I have found that a lot of doctors have a very laissez faire approach to PT referrals.  They'll say, "Just go anywhere."  I disagree!  You want to go to someone who is really invested in their career and developing their patients.  Far too often my clients have relayed stories of physical therapists who yawn as they hand out an old printout with "neck" exercises and tell the patient to just follow the chart while barely looking at their medical history.  Sometimes not all the exercises even pertain to the patient but the PT will have the client do them anyway. Ask for referrals from your friends, people you know in the medical field, or a fitness trainer.  We see what happens to our clients when they get good referrals or a bad one.  If I see a client with a great turnaround I always ask them who their PT is and reach out so I can refer future clients. Try to avoid group PT sessions. Some HMOs will lump people together with similar issues and have them all meet at the same time, so the shoulder people will all be grouped together.  This sounds okay in theory, but in practice you won't be getting the personal attention you probably need, and the physical therapist won't be able to spend as much time with you to make sure you're doing the therapy right.   If you do wind up in a group, speak with the PT afterwards to make sure you're doing everything properly and that your specific needs are being addressed. Work with the Sports Med guys. Most people reading this fitness blog aren't sedentary; we're getting up and doing stuff on a regular basis.  A regular physical therapy training program teaches PTs to get patients back to "activities for daily living."  This means you can tie your shoes, or climb stairs, or put groceries away.  If you participate in sports at any level you'd better be working with a Sports Med PT who looks at things differently.  They'll be thinking, "What level was he at before the injury and how do we get him back to that level?"  That's a big difference in approaching rehab and getting you back to your old weekend warrior self. If you don't like your PT, switch. Immediately!  Hey, it's your body; if it's not working, switch as soon as you can.  There's no point working with someone that you don't click with or that you feel isn't addressing your needs.  If you don't want to say it directly to the PT, that's fine; pick up the phone and tell the receptionist you'd like to work with someone else. I've given this advice out to my clients for years.  I hope you find it useful.  Let me know any good or bad stories about any physical therapy you had to go through. Thanks, Lisa

About Lisa Johnson

Lisa Johnson here. I've been a personal trainer since 1997, a Pilates instructor since 1998 and the owner of Modern Pilates since 1999. I'm hoping to give you some good ideas to get or stay in shape with a healthy dose of humor and reality. Thanks for joining me.

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13 Responses to Choose Your Physical Therapist Wisely

  1. Janice - The FitnessCheerleader August 17, 2010 at 11:27 am #

    I’d also like to add that you may want to see an Athletic Therapist instead of a Physical Therapist. An AT is the equivalent to a Sports Physiotherapist Level 3!! We have lots of experience with orthopaedic sports injuries and will work to not only get your injury healed, we’ll work with you to strengthen and correct imbalances or biomechanics that led to the injury in the first place. We have training and experience in a large number of sports and will work with you to also address the emotional issues associated with being injured and away from your sport. Athletic Therapists are certified by the National Athletic Trainers Association (NATA) in the US and the Canadian Athletic Therapists Association (CATA) in Canada.

  2. Lisa Johnson August 17, 2010 at 12:42 pm #

    Janice thanks for adding that. I don’t think they have that here in the States though, it sounds fantastic! L–

  3. Brooke August 17, 2010 at 12:54 pm #

    I’ll also add–thoroughly research your PT clinics. I’ve been through many, and the one I’m seeing right now has a great head PT/owner (and also an athletic trainer who does PT-oriented work, so this is similar to what Janice speaks of). Another clinic I’ve been to in the past has a great head PT, but he books himself so heavily that I got to see him maybe 2-3 minutes per visit if I got lucky? I spent most of each visit with his assistants, who sent me into their main gym to use the stationary bike and to complete a list of exercises (which I could do at home, thank you).

    Just saying that even if the owner/head PT is fantastic, your visit may be an entirely different experience. And as Lisa says, be willing to go somewhere else if you don’t figure this out until your first few visits.

  4. Michelle Quillin August 17, 2010 at 1:00 pm #

    Great post, Lisa! I’ve had my share of Physical Therapy over the years for a spinal condition I have that flares up now and then, and I have to say — the thought of being in a group PT situation sounds ridiculous. Technique is so important!

    My last PT watched every move I did and corrected constantly — even watching me walk on a treadmill.

    Michelle Quillin, New England HD and New England Multimedia

  5. Lisa Johnson August 17, 2010 at 1:13 pm #

    Hi Michelle, you should try Pilates! It’s great for reducing spine issues. We have lots of folks in my studio who come in for that reason and we work with physical therapists all the time. :-)

    Brooke, you’re definitely right. Research the clinic, check each PTs background, make sure the facilities are clean and run by people who care. I agree completely.


  6. Michelle Quillin August 17, 2010 at 4:02 pm #

    Lisa, I did try Pilates at the YMCA down the road — once. the instructor was trying to get me to do things that were causing a lot of spinal discomfort, and making a spectacle out of me! I never went back.

    Do you have any blog posts here about how to make sure your Pilates instructor is qualified to work with people with back injuries? My PTs have always recommended Pilates to me!


  7. Lisa Johnson August 17, 2010 at 4:09 pm #

    oh, I hate hearing about those stories! There are a lot of good reputable Pilates programs out there and unfortunately there are a few that aren’t as good. If you lived close enough to one of my studios I would say come in for a free session. It is flat out wrong to make a client feel uncomfortable because they can’t perform an exercise. Especially if it’s causing them pain! If I ever saw that the person would be fired instantly if they worked for me.

    Stott and Power Pilates are the two schools local to you with good reputations. If you want to email me your location I can help you find a specific studio, close to your house, that you won’t have that issue with.

    Thanks, for asking back,


  8. Jenna August 17, 2010 at 8:54 pm #

    I have always been a fan of “shopping” for the right physical therapist (and doctors!). I am very active/athletic and work in the medical field. Over the years I have had a variety of injuries that I have successfully rehabilitated with the combination of pilates and a great physical therapist. My best experiences have been with sports med PTs who work in private clinics. If you go to PT in a hospital setting, you will likely get minimal time with your therapist (it’s all about numbers there). Choose a clinic that can guarantee you at least 15 minutes 1:1 with your therapist (this is what your insurance is paying for!). Also, a PT session should always be hands-on. If your therapist throws you on a series of machines then find somewhere new.

    I don’t recommend seeing an Atheletic Trainer for any acute injury (payment with insurance would also be an issue). However, for upper extremity issues you can see an Occupational Therapist – but choose an OT who is a certified hand therapist (CHT). CHTs have extensive training in hand, elbow, and shoulder injuries.


  9. Lisa Johnson August 17, 2010 at 9:15 pm #

    Should know here folks, Jenna is a gifted OT (Occupational Therapist). :-) BU graduate, smart and funny and used to work for me as a front desk staffer while she was getting her degree. :-) Thanks Jenna, I still miss you. L–

  10. Jenna August 18, 2010 at 8:57 pm #

    Thanks Lisa! I couldn’t resist commenting on rehab- right up my alley! I spent all of last month “OT shopping” for my younger brother, he ended up with a fantastic therapist who is tailoring his rehab to his interests- throwing the javelin for track & field. Amazing how much more motivated and dedicated to therapy he is when the exercises are similar to his ultimate goal of getting a sports scholarship.

  11. Christine Prelaz August 31, 2010 at 11:30 am #

    Great advice! As a PT with over 20 yrs experience, I hate to hear about bad PT experiences…….especially seeing the client for numerous visits without progression or not seeing a licensed PT on a regular basis.
    I love the manual therapy aspect of my job; I also really enjoy being engaged & learning from my patients as well. This means I spend time with them! I am in a clinic where the patient & I get to decide on their treatment & visits. I really don’t want to see you unless it’s necessary! (nothing personal of course!)
    Unfortunately, many patients don’t know what’s good or bad if they have never been to PT before – finding the right match is important for successful rehab.
    Thanks for the post!
    Christine Prelaz

  12. Lisa Johnson August 31, 2010 at 5:17 pm #

    Christine thanks so much for stopping by the blog and adding your comment here about PT. As a Pilates instructor we like working with PTs as patients progress to clients. They might still have some stiffness but once the HMOs have signed off on them, we like to be a good, safe place they can go to and continue to improve on their strength and range of motion.

    Thanks again, hope you speak up more, we <3 PTs.


  13. Derek Dewitt October 13, 2017 at 9:36 am #

    My wife has been waking up with serious back pains lately, so we have been thinking about visiting a physical therapist. I like that you suggest asking friends and family for doctor recommendations. We’ll have to call a few friends who might have had similar issues and see what they say. Thanks for sharing.

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