What is Physiotherapy

Physiotherapy is a branch of the caring profession which focuses on function and movement. Its purpose is to maximise the body’s potential in terms of movement and flexibility and allow the person receiving the treatment to live their life to the full as far as possible.

The therapy is employed as an effective treatment when illness or disability results in poor operation of certain limbs or parts of the body in general. The science is also used to help people improve their own health and promote a sense of well being.

In the main, the role of a physiotherapist centres on boosting health and providing advice around prevention of illness, disease and injury, treatment of the aforementioned and rehabilitation for patients after an injury, from a condition or post-operation.


Techniques employed by a practitioner of physiotherapy include exercise therapy and manual manipulation of muscles and joints as well as the application of various electro-physical means (heat treatment, laser therapy etc) to treat painful soft tissue conditions.

Physiotherapists believe it is of vital importance to take note of psychological, cultural and social factors – all of which could be having an influence on their client’s condition.

As a practice, physiotherapy is used in hospitals, nursing practices and a number of other clinical outlets, as well as in sports clubs, gyms, schools, industry and domestic settings.

As well as directly treating physical and psychological conditions, the physiotherapist will also, during treatment, monitor the ongoing condition of the patient. This involves noting and remarking on any improvements or regressions and evaluating the current treatment. This could involve altering it at any stage. Indeed reviewing treatment methods and making clinical judgements is a large part of the physiotherapist’s role.

In western societies physiotherapists are very highly qualified, with degrees and years of study and practice. Their title as a practising physiotherapist is registered by a regulatory body – the Health Professions Council - which prosecutes any individual attempting to set themselves up as a physiotherapist without a recognised qualification in the UK, America and other European countries. In other eastern societies a lack of qualifications do not bar entry to practicing physiotherapy.

What to expect from a Physiotherapy Session

You’ll probably be referred to a physiotherapist via your doctor, nurse or other health care professional although increasingly people are beginning to self-refer and seek private physiotherapy help.

Your first consultation may last a while (probably around 40 minutes to one hour) and will involve giving a detailed medical history. This should include information about your working and social life, how much physical exercise you take and what your diet is like. The physiotherapist will also want to know about any allergies or phobias which could affect their treatment methods. This whole holistic approach is necessary in order for the therapist to identify what it is exactly that is causing your current difficulty ie shoulder or neck pain could be exacerbated by the way you sit at your desk at work, or how you hold the telephone when answering.

Physiotherapy Session with a Physiotherapist

The physiotherapist will want to look at your body movements and may ask you to remove some of your clothing, walk around the room and perform a series of simple movements in front of them. The therapist will assess your mobility as you do so by feeling muscle groups in your arms, legs and back. Treatment of your condition won’t even begin until the physiotherapist has established whether you do indeed require their help. Alternatively they may referral you to a GP.

Once your condition has been diagnosed the physiotherapist will suggest a treatment plan which could involve any number of techniques including massage, manipulation, heat treatment and postural correction.

Expect to be given some homework ie exercises to do at home before you leave your therapist’s office. These are usually repetitive and it’s necessary to do them on a daily basis, occasionally more often. You’ll also be advised of any adjustments you need to do to your working or social life as well as your lifestyle in general eg not sitting in a particular fashion or taking more of a certain type of exercise such as swimming. Physiotherapy is concerned with getting you to encourage your body to heal itself.

You should realistically expect to see some benefits from the physiotherapy treatment within two to six sessions. On rare occasions sometimes all that’s needed is a single session. You should always feel comfortable during a physiotherapy session. Feel free to ask questions and provide feedback to the therapist to let her know how her or his treatment is working out.

Follow-up appointments usually last for around 30 minutes and should end when the physiotherapist sees ongoing improvement. At this stage the patient should feel as if he has the knowledge – or rather ‘tools’ - for self-improvement ie exercise and knowledge of any necessary lifestyle changes.

Effects and Benefits of Physiotherapy

In terms of health categories, areas which can benefit from the use of physiotherapy as part of a general treatment plan include intensive care, occupational health, mental illness, stroke recovery and care of the elderly.

The conditions that physiotherapy can help with range from acute (a car crash or a recent sports injury) to long-standing and on-going (multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis, Parkinson’s disease).

From the body’s point of view a physiotherapist can assist with any number of problems relating to the neuromuscular, musculoskeletal, cardiovascular and respiratory systems of the body.

Examples of conditions and ailments which can directly benefit from physiotherapy treatment include those related to:

  • the heart (bypass surgery)
  • lungs (cystic fibrosis)
  • geriatrics (arthritis, Alzheimers, cancer, incontinence, joint conditions)
  • neurology (multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, brain or spinal cord injuries)
  • orthopaedics (sports injuries, spinal conditions, strains, broken bones and amputations)
  • problems with balance (Meniere’s disease, vertigo)
  • paediatrics (spina bifida, cerebral palsy, Down’s syndrome)
  • sports (tendon problems)
  • women’s health (osteoporosis, pelvic pain)

Anyone – regardless of age, gender, occupation etc – can benefit from treatment with a physiotherapist. In simple terms it can improve an individual’s life and wellbeing by means of:

  • Reducing Pain
  • Improving movement
  • Increasing strength of the muscles and joints
  • Reducing headaches and dizziness
  • Aiding recovery from an operation
  • Encouraging mobility and quicker recovery from a sports injury
  • Enhancing independence in terms of daily living arrangements
  • Improving heart function
  • Improving sleep thereby reducing anxiety

Professional Bodies & Organisations

The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP)

Founded in 1894, the CSP is a member-led organisation which is governed by an elected Council. It provides a range of services for members and lobbies the government and other relevant parties and sectors on behalf of physiotherapists and the profession of physiotherapy itself.

The Association of Paediatric Chartered Physiotherapists (APCP)

The APCP is a clinical interest group of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP). It aims to combine the skills, knowledge, research and new developments in paediatric physiotherapy for members and the health community in general.

Physio First

An organisation which represents physiotherapists in private practice. Set up in 1952 it aims to promote high standards in the profession and provide support for members. Also aims to educate the general public on physiotherapy and how to contact members of the profession.

The Health Professions Council (HPC)

The HPC regulates 15 health professions – physiotherapy being one of them. All members of these professions must be regulated in order to practice. Treating a patient under the guise of a registered practitioner is against the law. The HPC sets standards in terms of training, professional skills, behaviour and health.

Fascinating Facts about Physiotherapy

  • There are around 39,000 chartered physiotherapists in Britain and 76,000 in the United States
  • Hippocrates is believed to have been one of the first to practice physiotherapy back in 460BC when he used massage, manual therapy and hydrotherapy as a combined treatment
  • A machine called the gymnasticon was created to treat gout by regularly exercising the joints – an early indication of physiotherapy
  • The Swedish word for physiotherapist is translated as sick gymnast (sjukgymnast)
  • The world’s first physiotherapist was registered in Sweden in 1887
  • In 1894 four nurses became the first ever registered physiotherapists in Britain
  • Modern physiotherapy was first employed en-mass during the Polio outbreak of 1916
  • Women were recruited and taught physiotherapy techniques to help injured soldiers during the first world war
  • The first school of physiotherapy was set up in Washington DC shortly after the outbreak of World War One
  • The first ever research paper on physiotherapy was published in America in 1921
  • Physiotherapy treatment to the spine only really came into being in the 1950s. Prior to that the therapy consisted mainly of exercise, massage and traction
  • Physiotherapists are paid more than speech therapists or occupational therapists
  • Manual therapy became extremely popular after 1974 when the International Federation of Orthopaedic Manipulative Therapy was established
  • Electronic stimulators were introduced and widely-used in the profession during the 1980s when computers were first introduced into medicine