Do You Still Believe These 3 Physical Therapy Myths?

physical therapist examines a knee of a patient

In 2020, we tackled the top 5 myths we hear about physical therapy. These misconceptions often prevent patients from getting the care they need. Now, we’re diving a little deeper into some of those myths, as well as exposing some new ones, to spread awareness about what physical therapy is, what it treats, and how easy it is to access care (really!).

We asked our patients and clinicians to share some of the myths that they often hear about physical therapy. We noticed some common themes:

  • What Physical Therapy is: When people think of physical therapy, many people think of injury recovery but don’t think of strength training, dry needling, or aquatics — but there is so much more to physical therapy than people realize! Understanding what physical therapy looks like is the first step to getting back to the activities you love to do.

  • How Physical Therapy Can Help: Some people think that you only need physical therapy if your doctor or imaging results tell you so. But physical therapists don’t just treat pain or other symptoms, they can uncover issues and diagnose problems – all without a referral!

  • What Physical Therapy Costs: When you think of healthcare, you typically think of high costs and expensive bills. The perceived costs can prevent patients from getting the care they need. But unlike surgery, injections, or other invasive procedures, physical therapy is a highly cost-effective treatment option — because countless studies have shown that visiting a PT first can decrease overall treatment cost and save you lots of time!

  • What Physical Therapy Offers (and How): Physical therapy for injury recovery is well known. But did you know that it can also help to prevent injuries in the first place? Both in a clinic and via telehealth, physical therapists can work with patients to increase mobility and improve health outcomes for a variety of issues.

Defining Terms: What is Physical Therapy? (And what is it not)

Physical Therapy is a holistic, non-invasive discipline aimed at improving movement, reducing pain, restoring function, and preventing physical disability. Physical therapists use a combination of methods to create customized treatment plans based on a person’s condition, symptoms, and goals.

Physical therapy cannot be defined by just one of those treatment methods, like massage, exercise, or dry needling. Physical therapists are trained to draw on these different methods to provide optimal care, in addition to counseling on lifestyle choices, behaviors, and habits.

Myth #1: I have to go to my primary care doctor before I can go to Physical Therapy.

A big misconception about physical therapy is that you can’t make an appointment until you see a primary care doctor first — that it’s a method of treating symptoms and can’t help diagnose the root of the problem. “Physical therapists are doctorate-level professionals who are specialists in musculoskeletal health...which is just a fancy way to say that we can diagnose, evaluate and treat issues related to your muscles, bones, cartilage, ligaments, tendons, and connective tissues,” says Dr. Erica Manchester PT, DPT. “That means that we take the time to assess our patients and can often diagnose the issue right there.”

So, how does this myth create a barrier to care? Well, sometimes it leads patients to think:

“I have to wait to make an appointment until after I get an MRI”

“I have to go to my PCP first to get a referral”

“I need to see another specialist for a diagnosis first”

But here's the truth:

  • You can access physical therapy without a referral

  • Physical therapists can provide an initial assessment and direct a plan of care in collaboration with your PCP or other specialists

  • It’s easier to get an appointment with a PT!

  • Physical therapists are trained to be primary care providers for any issues related to movement

MYTH #2 – Physical Therapy is too expensive

Another barrier for patients can be the cost. Because physical therapy is a specialized area of healthcare, patients assume that means it will be expensive. But in fact, physical therapy is one of the most cost-effective clinical solutions.

Here’s what we hear:

"Insurance won’t cover physical therapy”

"Physical therapy is going to cost too much”

“I know what cost to expect with a one-time surgery, but physical therapy involves lots of appointments”

Surgery vs. PT

But, here’s a question for you: what do you think costs more? A surgery that will put you out of commission for weeks if not months, and could likely need to be repeated a few years down the line, or a series of sessions with a physical therapist who is trained in pain management through movement education and interventions? It’s not a trick question.

Physical therapy can even prevent the need for additional, more costly medical interventions, like pain medicine or surgery. In fact, the cost for just one surgery, for instance, could equal years of physical therapy sessions.

“The key goals of physical therapy are to reduce pain, increase mobility, and educate patients about ways to manage pain and improve health,” says Dr. Andrew Guay PT, DPT. “By empowering our patients to be active in their care, we help reduce the need for more costly medical interventions in the future.”

MYTH #3 – Physical Therapy is only for injury recovery

People know that physical therapy is a useful course of treatment after they are injured. It’s also frequently prescribed after major surgery or an accident. But too often, patients think that the uses for PT end there.

Here’s what we hear:

“PT is prescribed only after surgery”

“Physical therapy can’t be preventative”

“Physical therapy is something you need when you’re old or hurt.”

Rehabilitation for people who have been injured or underwent surgery is certainly part of our practice. In fact, we have the highest number of Board-Certified Orthopedic Clinical Specialists in New England, meaning many of our clinicians specialize in preventing disability and promoting physical rehabilitation for people experiencing musculoskeletal dysfunction or injury.

But, that’s not all. Our clinicians are movement experts, meaning they can assess, treat and manage virtually any issue related to movement.

Some of our specialties include:

  • Optimization of athletic performance

  • Pain management for chronic illness

  • Low back pain

  • Spinal injuries

  • Shoulder and neck pain

  • Carpal tunnel