Physical therapists have always been improvisers when it comes to treating patients. For example, they pioneered the use of resistance tubing for strength training exercises. They rig up innovative rope and pulley systems for a range of motion and strength. They find countless uses for stability balls and traffic cones and even plain old towels and tennis balls. It’s all highly effective and decidedly low tech (even when they combined a massage ball with an electric hammer, e.g., “does percussive therapy actually work?”).
But Physical Therapists aren’t immune to major advances in technology, either. There have been plenty of new physical therapy trends over recent years.
But first, what does a physical therapist do?
The goal of physical therapy has always been to help patients get back to the activities that matter most in a non-invasive way to maximize the body’s natural healing processes. For the most part, that means guiding patients through targeted exercises for optimal healing and recovery. Therapists design movements for each individual's specific ailments and needs.
There might not seem to be a lot of opportunities for change in a field like that. After all, PTs are limited by human anatomy, and even the most sophisticated computers and machines won’t change the rate at which muscles naturally grow or tissues naturally heal. So is there room for new physical therapy concepts to update the way things have been done for years?
Keeping up with the pressure for change
Whether they like it or not, many physical therapists cannot spend as much time with patients as they used to. The healthcare system just doesn’t allow it. And so PTs are forced to continue adapting their methodologies. They continue to try out new tools and techniques for healing their patients and how they interact with them. Here are just a few of the ways the field of physical therapy has adopted in recent years:
Telehealth or Telerehab
Remote visits with patients have really taken off lately thanks to the coronavirus pandemic and quarantines. There are drawbacks, of course. Nothing beats hands-on treatment—where the PT is actually able to lay hands on a patient to guide and analyze their movements. However, remote visits have the advantage of reaching many patients who otherwise wouldn't make it into the clinic at all. These patients are more comfortable and relaxed at home, and the PT can still walk them through their exercises, demonstrating proper form and encouraging compliance.
Taking it a step further, physical therapists find fair use for interactive, immersive, virtual reality environments that can train and challenge patients to help with balance, coordination, and mobility. While most people don’t have VR capabilities in their own homes yet, development continues on in-clinic systems that are sure to see wider use in the future.
One thing many patients have access to at home is video games. Video game consoles, like Nintendo Wii, are great for “gamifying” the physical therapy process. With its motion-sensitive controllers, the Wii lets patients play games using movements similar to what they would be doing in physical therapy. They’ve even given it a cute name: Wii-hab.
The future is (almost) here. But robots aren't replacing physical therapists any time soon. Still, robotic machines are already able to help patients through physical therapy sessions. They can even guide them as they learn to walk again.
The Future of Physical Therapy
At its most basic, physical therapy still relies on the interaction of therapist and patient, with patients progressing by following the exercises prescribed by the PT. These new techniques in physical therapy are simply tools designed to ease that process, joining the arsenal of longstanding physical therapist tools that professionals recommend.