Physiotherapy, like the rational approach to medicine, was founded in ancient Greece. Hippocrates, widely regarded as the founding father of Western medicine, practiced massage therapy as a treatment for physical healing and stress relief as early as 460 BC. Other Greek physicians, such as Hector, wrote about a variety of physical therapy techniques that are still in use today, such as hydrotherapy. The Greeks, however, were not the only people practicing physical therapy; ancient writings from Persia, China and Egypt also describe the benefits of exercise, movement and massage for ailments.
For centuries, the field of physical therapy saw relatively little advancement. Change was slow, until the founding of a physical therapy group in England in the late 19th century. A group of nurses started the group to educate others about the practice, its benefits and techniques. In 1914, the practice spread to Washington D.C., where physical therapy techniques were used to help rehabilitate soldiers wounded in the First World War.
Following increased research in the field, the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) was formed in 1921. The association’s published medical journals were soon regarded as an ultimate authority on the subject, and interest in the field continued to grow through the United States and world.
An outbreak of polio in the 1920s placed increased demand on physical therapists, which lead to more breakthroughs in treatment techniques. Additional improvements were seen in the following several decades as a result of increased medical and surgical knowledge.
Until the Second World War, most physical therapies were done in hospitals on patients recovering from surgeries, injuries or other conditions. Specialty physical therapy clinics were founded during the war to provide treatment for the thousands of wounded soldiers that needed rehabilitation following hospital stays. This transition to outpatient care represented the growing popularity of physical therapy. In the late 1960s, the practice became widely accepted in the medical field and was included in basic medical coverage through many government programs and insurance policies.
During the next two decades, the profession of physical therapy increasingly diversified. Specializations, such as cardiopulmonary physical therapy, skin therapy, neurological therapy and sports therapy, were recognized by APTA , and the discipline continued to become more widely regarded.
Today, physiotherapy is used to treat a variety of ailments and conditions. Patients may seek treatment for back pain, osteoarthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, bursitis, muscle strains, Guillain-Barre syndrome, balance conditions, asthma, fibromyalgia, wounds, burns, rheumatoid arthritis and a host of other conditions. The goals of physiotherapy depend on the patient’s unique needs, but common desired outcomes include a reduction in pain, increased range of motion, increased endurance and strength, restored independence, a reduction in stress and a greater quality of life for the patient.
Treatment methods also vary per the patient’s needs and goals, but may include electrotherapy, hydrotherapy, massage, passive joint mobilization, exercises, stretches and the application of heat or cold. Physical therapists may also educate patients on how to use and adapt to mobilization devices, such as wheelchairs, crutches or walkers.