What is a Physiotherapist and When Should I See One?

At a glance:

  • Physiotherapists are Allied Health professionals specialising in the structure of the human body, it’s mobility and overall optimal function
  • Physiotherapists cannot prescribe medication but instead use physical methods to treat injuries, disorders and some diseases through physical methods like massage, exercise prescription, education and the use of specialist equipment
  • Patients don’t need a referral to see a physiotherapist, but may be referred to a physio by their GP or another healthcare professional

What is a Physiotherapist?

A physiotherapist, or physio, is an Allied Health professional that uses physical methods, such as exercise, massage and muscle/joint manipulation to treat injuries, disorders and some diseases without the need for medication or surgery.

The role of a physiotherapist in treatment can vary from case to case or practice to practice. They may help diagnose underlying healthcare problems through changes in mobility or function in one case, or help in recovery after an injury or accident in another. 

As experts in mobility and the structure of the human body, physiotherapists work with people from a wide age and demographic range, helping to diagnose issues ranging from accident or sports injury, to helping manage symptoms of or aid in the recovery from chronic health conditions such as diabetes, stroke, osteoarthritis or obesity.   

Although they are not doctors and as such cannot prescribe medication, physiotherapists are highly trained and skilled healthcare professionals. Becoming a physiotherapy practitioner in Australia requires that a person must complete a Degree (Bachelor, Master’s or Professional Doctorate) in physiotherapy, complete supervised practice in multiple and varied clinical settings, register with the National Physiotherapy Board of Australia and complete continuing professional development.

As with other healthcare professions, physiotherapists may specialise in certain areas or techniques, such as Musculoskeletal physiotherapy, (joints, necks and backs), Sports Physiotherapy, (sports injuries), Cardiorespiratory Physiotherapy (heart and lung conditions), Gerontology (easing pain and maintaining physical health in the elderly) and Neurology (dealing with conditions related to the spinal and nervous systems).  To become a Specialist Physiotherapist in any of these areas is a further rigorous qualification process, and once completed, the physio becomes a Fellow of the Australian College of Physiotherapists.

What Kind of Treatments Does a Physiotherapist offer?

No two patients will require identical treatment, so physiotherapists draw from a large pool of techniques to treat conditions or ease symptoms, such as:

Manual Therapy
Manual therapies are some of the most common physiotherapeutic treatments, and include techniques such as massage, tissue or joint manipulation, joint mobilisation and the use of specialised equipment and tools. 

Exercise Therapy
As part of therapy, a physiotherapist will often create a tailored exercise regime to help strengthen muscles to alleviate pain or stop recurring injury. These exercises may also be used to help improve function, strengthen atrophied muscles or alleviate the symptoms of chronic conditions

Biomechanical Analysis
Biomechanics is the study of motion and how the muscles, bones and joints work in conjunction to perform those motions. Biomechanical analysis may involve analysing your gait (walking), how you run or a specific action or sport to determine how an injury occurred, an underlying problem or condition or to prevent an injury from occurring. 

Your physio should provide you with a thorough understanding of your diagnosis, the causative factors, and their plan to improve these.  Education forms a vital component of your physio experience.

Acupuncture and Dry Needling
A number of physiotherapists have integrated skills including acupuncture and dry needling into treatments. Although both techniques use needles, there are substantial differences between the two. 

Dry needling utilised single use fine needles to release myofascial trigger points (a knot in a muscle) to relieve discomfort and allow a muscle to stretch and contract normally.

Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese form of medicine that uses needles to influence the flow of energy around the body.

Physiotherapists may use a number of different devices or machines to aid in treatments. These are often referred to using the umbrella term, electrotherapy. 

Therapeutic Ultrasound uses sound waves below the frequencies that can be heard by human ears and may reduce swelling and promote blood flow and healing. 

A TENS machine ( Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation ) may be used to relieve pain by delivering electrical stimulation to nerves. 

EMS (Electronic Muscle Stimulation) uses electrical impulses to stimulate the contraction of muscle fibres to help strengthen damaged or weakened muscles.

Hydrotherapy Water offers a level of weight-bearing buoyancy that can help alleviate obstacles that may stop people from being able to exercise regularly on land. Hydrotherapy has been shown to help people with chronic pain to exercise without exacerbating their symptoms, as well as people with other conditions such as osteoarthritis, spine issues, hip issues, people with balance or falling issues, those with cardiopulmonary issues and many more. 

Hydrotherapy pools often contain warm water to relax muscles. One of the major benefits of hydrotherapy for groups such as those with conditions including arthritis or old age is that they can enjoy a much greater range of movement thanks to the support offered by the water. This means they can exercise without many of the serious side effects that may occur on land. 

Physiotherapists (especially sports physios) frequently use strapping or supportive tape to reduce recurrence of or prevent injury, support joints or relieve pain. In some cases, a physio may use stretchy kinesiology tape to help ease pain. Unlike strapping tape, kinesiology tape stretches like skin, allowing it to support muscles or joints without constriction.

When Should I See a Physiotherapist?

Unlike with many other specialised medical professions, people don’t need to be referred to a physiotherapist. That said, a GP or other medical professional may refer you to a physiotherapist for rehabilitation or additional treatment.

Being referred to a physiotherapist as part of a care plan (Team Care Agreement) may give you access to some physiotherapeutic treatments with a Medicare rebate. Most private health insurance policies include physiotherapy in their extras cover.

There are a large number of conditions, diseases or injuries that may trigger a trip to see a physiotherapist, including:

  • Musculoskeletal injuries - rehabilitation for and symptom management for all manner of muscular and skeletal injuries
  • Neuropathic pain - shooting or burning pain due to nerve damage or malfunctioning nerves
  • Sports injuries relief and prevention - strapping and taping for injury prevention and physical therapies to help aid in reducing the pain and healing time from injuries
  • Lymphoedema - swelling in the arms and legs usually due to the removal of lymph nodes during cancer treatment
  • Occupational health - relieving symptoms of and preventing recurrence of workplace injuries, such as back or knee problems
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Osteoporosis
  • Pain management
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Cancer
  • Diabetes - diabetes causes problems with peripheral blood flow that may be aided by exercise. Exercise may also be required for weight management.
  • Multiple Sclerosis - increasing mobility and quality of life for people with nerve damage from MS
  • Obesity - tailored exercise regimens to aid in sustainable weight loss
  • Stroke - rehabilitation from stroke, improving mobility and retraining movement 

How Do I Find a Physiotherapist Near Me?

As of 2019, there were 33,792 registered physiotherapists working around Australia. If you’re being referred to a physiotherapist by your GP or another health professional, they may have recommendations for physiotherapists near your location.

If you’re looking to schedule an appointment with a physiotherapist , the fastest and easiest way to search for and book healthcare online is with MyHealth1st.

Looking for a health expert near you?