Evolution of Physical Therapy

Evolution of Physical Therapy hover background

Feb 03

You may be surprised to know about the evolution of physical therapy and how it came to be the practice that it is today. Physical therapy was originally a profession developed out of the need to treat soldiers that had been injured in World War I. The first physical therapists were known as reconstruction aides.

Physical therapy as it exists today, looks very different. So, how did we get from there to where we are today?

The Polio Epidemic and Physical Therapy

While reconstruction aides were degreed professionals, they received additional training to complete their services. When the polio epidemic hit the United States beginning in 1916, physical therapy helped treat polio patients. Polio is a disease affecting the nervous system, sometimes causing paralysis. Physical therapy was used to treat patients whose brain stem and spinal cord had been affected by polio leading to paralysis, muscular atrophy and permanent deformities.

The polio epidemic lasted from 1916-1955 and over 57,000 cases were reported. At its peak in the 1950’s, polio killed over 3,000 people in America.

A professional organization was founded in 1921 and is now known today as the American Physical Therapy Association, or APTA. As physical therapy became more common, educational and training programs were developed to regulate it.

When World War II hit, many soldiers that would have previously died from their injuries, survived due to advances in medicine. Because of this, many needed treatment for their injuries, thus leading to the further evolution and development of physical therapy. Physical therapists have continued to treat soldiers throughout the decades as a result of other wars.

Evolution of Physical Therapy: Turning Points

A turning point for physical therapy as a professional came in 1946 with the Hill Burton Act, which helped to build the healthcare infrastructure for our country after WWII. Following The Hill Burton Act, many more physical therapists began practicing in hospitals, making the profession more commonplace.

Another turning point came for the profession in 1967, as amendments to the Social Security Act defined outpatient physical therapy services and allowed them to become reimbursable healthcare providers.

Physical Therapy As It Exists Today

Today, the American Physical Therapy Association defines a physical therapist as:

“highly-educated, licensed health care professionals who can help patients reduce pain and improve or restore mobility – in many cases without expensive surgery and often reducing the need for long-term use of prescription medications and their side effects.”

While physical therapy was originally developed to treat very specific diseases and conditions, it is now recognized as a healthcare option, for not only treatment, but also prevention of injury. Today, there are many branches and specializations of physical therapy.

What does this mean for you as a patient?

As the profession continues to grow and it becomes more recognizable, patients will have more choices for their healthcare. In the state of Arizona, you have direct access to your physical therapist, meaning that a referral is not required from your primary care physician. Your physical therapist can be your doctor or practitioner of choice for evaluation, diagnosis and treatment of pain or disease. The evolution of physical therapy has come far in the last century.

Physical therapy can treat a multitude of conditions ranging from back pain and spinal cord injuries to post surgery rehab or balance and coordination issues.  To determine whether or not physical therapy is right for you, contact us for an evaluation today.


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Queen Creek, AZ 85142
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