Physical Therapy is all about movement. To some people it almost seems too simple. But the reality is, the way we move our bodies in our daily lives, over and over again, will greatly impact how we feel over time.
Just as injuries are derived from unnatural or improper movements, they can be corrected and tissue can heal through exercising proper movements. That is what physical therapy is all about, correcting the human movement system.
The Human Movement System And Physical Therapy
Were you aware of the fact that your body includes a movement system? You probably are aware of your cardiovascular and neurological systems, but to many hearing of their body’s movement system is new.
When your movement system is not controlled and maintained it can be a source of pains, aches and injuries and other health conditions; just like your body’s other systems.
However, a human movement expert, known as a physical therapist, can work with you so that it is a strong foundation for long-term health and fitness.
By “it” being controlled this means that your body’s movements must be controlled. Out of control movements lead to stress on tissue over time which results in pain and injury.
Quick video explaining What the Human Movement System Is
Physical therapy is mostly associated with being unable to do physical activities you enjoy, suffering pain and being injured. And many times PT is only considered as a last ditch effort treatment or post surgery for rehab. Yikes! PT has so many more applications that could even prevent that surgery in the first place. This is why defining the scope of physical therapy is so important.
Although many of the aforementioned associations with physical therapy are all true, physical therapy also has an identity that is completely different than what you may be aware of.
Within the health and fitness world, physical therapy as a profession has been lacking in identity. There are people and organizations, like the APTA, working to help provide physical therapists with an identity. However, our identity still isn’t fully apparent to consumers and the general public. But also among other fitness and health professionals physical therapy doesn’t have a strong or consistent definition.
In 2013-14 the Human Movement System was adopted by the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) as physical therapy’s identity, some refer to it as the APTA Movement System. The body system that physical therapists have their own responsibility and expertise for is the human movement system. So, Physical therapy is what you should think of when you hear human movement system.
The APTA is a national professional organization that regulates the field of Physical Therapy. Their vision statement talks about human movement and they also created a subsection of their vision statement that offers guiding principles on the human movement system.
I recommend you read it sometime, it is a very interesting document, here is just once excerpt:
“Movement is a key to optimal living and quality of life for all people that extends beyond health to every person’s ability to participate in and contribute to society. The complex needs of society, such as those resulting from a sedentary lifestyle, beckon for the physical therapy profession to engage with consumers to reduce preventable health care costs and overcome barriers to participation in society to ensure the successful existence of society far into the future.”
The APTA also put together this PDF Whitepaper on Physical Therapy and the Human Movement System for further information and guidance on the topic.
The Human Movement System Defined
Many University programs will define the human movement system as a system comprised of physiological organ systems which interact and produce body movement as well as movement of the body’s parts. Sound familiar from your schooling, PTs and PTAs?
What that definition means is that physical therapists have expertise in physical human movement involving the neuromuscular and musculoskeletal systems.
In laymen’s terms, the most simple human movement system definition would be:
Your movement system is comprised of nerves, bones, and muscles. Physical Therapists are experts on these systems so that they can fully understand your complete movement system and how the components work together.
There are many types of human movement as you begin to study the movement system. One of the reasons you need an entire expertise around the movement system.
It’s very important to put physical therapists in a bucket, as experts of the human movement system, just like other specialized doctors are experts in their specific fields. This way lines can be drawn and consumers can understand their treatment options.
It may sound silly but it is common sense that you would not refer a heart patient to a neurologist or vice versa by referring a brain injury patient to a neurologist. One specialist focuses on the heart while the other focuses on the brain and nervous system.
It needs to become this clear, common sense even, that you would refer someone with knee pain to a physical therapist before a surgeon.
Here are the basic requirements of a human movement system practitioner (Physical Therapist) taken from the APTA’s PDF:
In depth, integrative knowledge of the human movement system and its component elements (anatomical structures and physiological functions)
The ability to evaluate and diagnose movement dysfunction in the clinical setting (using observation, instruments, or both)
The ability to identify physical impairments across various body systems (eg, integumentary, musculoskeletal, cardiorespiratory, neurological, endocrine, genitourinary) that may be contributing to dysfunctional movement, such as muscle weakness, limited joint range of motion, limited oxygen exchange, or impaired motor control
The ability to design an intervention program to address underlying impairments as well as the movement dysfunction itself
Physical therapy in fact is all about educating people about their bodies and teaching them how to move properly so that they can continue doing the activities they enjoy. Physical therapists work to provide people with the knowledge as well as the training/treatment plan so that they can eliminate pain they experience on a daily basis. They design and assess movement programs specific to each individual, putting them in the best position to achieve their unique goals.
Ever heard the analogy that food is to your body like fuel is to a car? Well a car is a great analogy for your body. Everyone knows someone who continually puts off changing their vehicle’s oil; everything seems to be working fine until one day they call ya up to help them with their broken down car.
The same thing takes place inside your body as you use your body every single day and perform movements improperly. This is no different than driving your car without the proper oil in it. Your body, just like the car, will break down over time.
One day you’re feeling great and thinking everything is good, until you wake up the next day and are in so much pain that you aren’t able to stand up straight. It is the result of your movement system breaking down slowly over time.
What Differentiates Physical Therapists from Other Medical Professionals
In short the answer is, “Their approach to diagnosis and treatment.”
But more specifically, you might be wondering, how about orthopedic physicians? They specialize in joints, bones, soft tissues and muscles. How do they differ from a PT?
Well, they don’t address and assess active physical movement, like walking, since it isn’t their specific area of expertise. In addition, some have a tendency to not assess the way one part of the body relates to others.
For example, ankle problems can cause knee pain. If you are experiencing knee pain and visit a physician specializing in the knee, they will usually evaluate your knee in order to attempt to find out what is wrong with your knee.
That can become problematic, particularly when treatments like surgery, medications and injections are considered to treat that knee. A Physical Therapist, who is an expert on your movement system, would immediately know to inquire about your ankle in regards to your knee pain. The PT would also avoid some of these other treatments methods to attempt something much less intrusive to your body.
Orthopedic physicians don’t treat or assess the movement system using actual movement since that is the area of expertise of the physical therapist. The same is true with many chiropractors, physicians etc.
The reason I am pointing out these professions is because those are the ones that a lot of people see first whenever they have a problem or pain. It wasn’t long ago that people could choose to see a physical therapist without a referral from their physician. So, our healthcare system was set up to send people to these other types of medical professionals first. Luckily, that has changed.
Another problem is many other medical professionals don’t have a clear understanding of what the specific role of the physical therapist is, it’s importance, or the way the profession has evolved. Even though there is plenty of solid research available showing that physical therapy can help with getting rid of pain, preventing operations and improving both advanced and everyday movements.
PT still doesn’t have other medical professional’s full attention.
That isn’t to discount those other medical professions, which all have their place and are necessary; however, physical therapy does as well.
Injuries & Pain Typically Develop Over Time, So PT is a Proactive Practice
Most injuries and pain develop over time. They are caused by habitual movements that we perform every day. There are always signs in advance of the symptoms, injuries and pain that develop. The signs are within the body’s movement system that adapts constantly as you bend, lift, run, sit, walk or bend.
The repetitive movements that take place in your everyday life and job are what shape the movement system. These signs are found by physical therapists and corrected to reduce your risks of injury and pain by making improvements to your movement performance.
My sister, a PTA, is always telling everyone in my family to sit up straight at the dinner table. And she is absolutely right, slouching causes all sorts of pain in the human movement system, such as back pain, headaches, jaw pain and chronic neck pain.
Because our healthcare system used to make patients see a doctor first and then get referred to a physical therapist, PT was viewed as a reactive practice towards health issues. But as the medical field evolves into its own, physical therapy’s identity isn’t defined any longer as purely reactive. It is actually most often a proactive practice.
Prevention is not always guaranteed by being proactive. I don’t believe we can actually prevent injury and pain. I think that at some point in every person’s life that they we will have injury and pain because of the simple fact that we use our bodies to move.
That would be like expecting to drive the same car everyday of your life and never expect to need an oil change, a headlight replacement, or an engine tuning.
Many factors are involved in our lives and movement, many of which are completely out of what we can control. However, what we can do is work towards helping to avoid injury and pain by making improvements to our quality of movement. You will find that PTs focus on many simple but highly effective things like being mindful of your posture. And when injury or pain occurs, making the effort to quickly manage it to help you return to your current activity level.
After all, helping you feel healthy, happy and generally good is the ultimate goal.
Why the APTA’s Vision is Great for Physical Therapy & Consumers
Because the APTA has defined the human movement system and the Physical Therapist’s role, now Physical Therapists can be better and more easily defined as well. They are trained experts with the movement system but without defining the system in which they are experts it is hard to define and understand their purpose.
Now the APTA has presented the clear idea of the Physical Therapist’s role in the medical field for all other professions to better understand. This also allows for consumers to make more informed decisions about their health care and treatment options.
Sure, there are still inconsistencies within physical therapy, like with all professions, in terms of skill level. The definition of the physical therapist’s and the PTA’s role still needs to evolve and progress and standards need to change as well. However, there are many highly skilled physical therapists today progressing the medical field forward.
And now, by definition, they are knowledgeable, practiced, experts at diagnosing and treating the human movement system from injury, pain, and to enhance movement performance in every aspect.
Have you healed pain by changing your movement? It took me years to connect my daily movement with pain that I was experiencing, but others that I talk to say that they made the connection early on. Tell us your experience in the comments below! 🙂