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What is a Physiotherapist?

May 8, 2019

Now there’s a big important question that I, perhaps, should have addressed in a blog post earlier.

I think there’s some confusion in the community about what exactly a physiotherapist is, what they can treat and how they fit among other types of health professionals.

For example, I’ve heard from people the belief that “physios only treat muscles”, or “physios only treat arms and legs.” Neither of these reflect reality, but understandably people are trying to come up with an idea of how physiotherapists might be differentiated from other health professionals, where we, as a profession, haven’t effectively communicated our role to the community.


Effectively, physiotherapists use physical and other non-medical strategies to treat a variety of conditions. These conditions include musculoskeletal (muscles, bones and joints) pain conditions, neural (nervous system) conditions and pulmonary (lung) conditions.

As primary practitioners (meaning you can see a physiotherapist without requiring a referral from a GP), physiotherapists are able to assess your presentation, make a diagnosis, analyse potential contributing factors, provide treatment and management strategies and make or suggest referrals to other practitioners.

A local, private practice physiotherapy, such as this one, will generally focus primarily on the treatment of musculoskeletal conditions such as back pain, neck pain, shoulder pain, joint sprains, muscle strains, tendon conditions etc. They may also be able to help with the treatment of other issues such as poor balance/falls, excessive coughing associated with pneumonia or similar conditions, incontinence/women’s health issues, and vertigo. If they can’t help with these conditions, they’ll be able to point you in the direction of a physiotherapist who does specialise in these areas.


What exactly is meant by “physical and other non-medical strategies”?

This refers to the wide variety of treatment techniques available beyond pharmacological treatments and medical procedures. This includes hands-on treatments (eg massage, joint mobilisations), exercise prescription, taping and physical modalities (eg ultrasound, electrotherapy, heat, ice). It also includes advice and education.

For a long time physiotherapists have been offering advice to patients on things such as good acute injury management and return to sport pathways. Recently, research has shown the link between psychosocial factors and pain conditions, particularly back pain, and so physiotherapists are able to incorporate advice on things such as stress management, sleep hygiene and coping strategies. We can also recognise where psychosocial factors may warrant a referral to another practitioner, such as a psychologist.


These treatments are based on a body of scientific evidence supporting their use. To keep up to date with current research (which is progressing all the time) physiotherapists participate in regular continuing education. This means that if you’ve not had success with physiotherapy in the past for a certain condition, you may find that research on this condition has progressed and we now have more tools for its management. This is true for a number of conditions, but is particularly true for back pain and chronic pain.

So that was a long answer to what seemed like a fairly simple question! Here’s a summary


  • Use physical and other treatments that are non-pharmacological or medical procedures
  • Can treat a variety of conditions, including the entirety of the musculoskeletal system
  • Base their treatments on evidence from a body of scientific research
  • Are able to recognise when it is appropriate to refer you on to another professional
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