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Evolution Of Physical Therapy



A health care team comprises doctors, nurses, physicians, speech therapists, and physical therapists along with other ancillary services. Physical therapy forms an important part of health care and is administered daily to patients within the US as well as globally. Physical therapists along with physical therapy assistants help patients in their movement, pain reduction, and prevention of disability including restoration of function by the use of appropriate exercise and massage therapy. Physical therapists and assistants along with physical therapy students provide their services in hospitals, private clinics, nursing homes, sports centers, and school clinics. Early physical therapy intervention helps to avoid costlier treatments at the latter stage. Therefore physical therapy forms an integral part of the healthcare system.

Specialties under Physical Therapy

The following specialties are a part of physical therapy as mentioned by the American Physical Therapy Association:

  • Aquatic physical therapy
  • Acute care
  • Clinical electro and wound management
  • Geriatrics
  • Sports medicine
  • Orthopedic
  • Women’s health

The Traditional Way

In the traditional setup, in order to receive physical therapy, the patient must first acquire a referral from a physician. A referral essentially indicates that the patient should seek services from other health care providers. It did not form a part of the health care system and was not integrated inpatient treatment.

Physical therapy as a profession developed in the US during World War I. It developed due to the need to treat soldiers with war injuries. Reed College and Walter Reed Hospital were pioneers in championing the course in physical therapy and the first known therapists passed from these institutes; they were known as reconstruction aides. Although reconstruction aides passed to another degree, they had undergone special training to perform physical therapy.

Subsequently, the field of physical therapy developed and its special need was felt from 1920 to 1930 due to the onset of poliomyelitis. In 1921 these newly formed health care providers decided to form an organization for physical therapists known as American Women’s Therapeutic Association. But as World War II came to an end, the need for physical therapists grew, thus by 1930, the association came to be known as the American Physiotherapy Association. By 1940 the name was again changed to American Physical Therapy Association (ATPA).

As time went by, there were many breakthroughs in medicine, and physical therapy developed as well as evolved into primary healthcare. One of the landmarks in the history of physical therapy came in 1967 when amendments were made in the Social Security Act which acknowledged physical therapy services as healthcare providers for reimbursement. The field has been growing tremendously over the years with much advancement and recognition.


Today, physical therapy has evolved to handle not only diverse injuries but also prevent regression of the body movements and pain caused due to disease processes. Physical therapy is not exclusive to the US but has evolved internationally and is termed as physiotherapy. Unlike before, patients today do not require any referrals from physicians nor are they dictating the treatment evaluation, rather all the decisions are left for the physical therapist to decide upon.

This growth in the field of physical therapy and the rising responsibility of patient care has led the APTA to formulate a vision statement for physical therapy and was cumulatively termed as Vision 2020. The vision aims to achieve many goals by the year 2020 while maintaining standards. The vision also emphasizes risk management which is vital for every physical therapist. Being at a responsible post, physical therapists should be equipped with the right knowledge in order to avoid litigations and lawsuits, which are rampant in today’s society.

As the field of physical therapy evolves further and incorporates many sub-fields, its representing organization also evolves to represent this community. Today APTA has offices throughout the US and provides services to physical therapists, physical therapy assistants, and physical therapy students in order to help them practice better.