If you’ve had physical therapy for an injury, pain, or post-surgical rehab, it may surprise you to know not all PT is created equal. In fact, a lot of physical therapy can be grouped into one of two categories: traditional, insurance-driven practices and alternative/holistic cash-based practices.
As someone who's practiced both, I'm sharing a few reasons I think anyone looking for true, long-term healing should give holistic physical therapy a try. Here are a few ways your experience with a holistic physical therapist may be different from the norm:
1. We may cost more up front, but we're worth it in the long run.
First, let me acknowledge that I realize not everyone has a choice and that your finances may be the driving force behind who you decide to trust with your body, mind, and soul. But I'm going to nudge you now...what if all that money saved ended up in partial relief, incomplete healing, or no attempt at integrating all the important parts of you that contribute to the healing process?
What happens then is you’ll be back. Or resentful. Or thinking PT just doesn’t work or that the therapist wasn’t good enough or some other situation leaving you dissatisfied and no closer to your goal of feeling good and living life to the fullest.
The biggest difference between traditional physical therapy and alternative or holistic physical therapy is the therapist’s ability to evaluate and treat all of you, no matter what your doctor wrote down on your prescription.
It’s this holistic and inclusive approach—and I’m not just talking about all your body parts; I’m talking mind and soul, too—that creates the environment for optimal healing to take place.
2. We don't just focus on one body part.
When I went to school we were taught to look at one area of the body at a time, similar to how doctors operate: one diagnosis, one body part only. We learned how to measure range of motion and strength, how to mobilize soft tissue and joints, and how to come up with a functional diagnosis for you.
What schools aren’t taking into consideration is the intimate connections of the fascial system and every other part of you, including your thoughts and desires. They aren't teaching PTs how to empower their clients or address the somato-emotional component of illness, disease, and injury.
So holistic physical therapists pursued all that training after school was done. In my case, a mentor pointed me in the direction of John F. Barnes Myofascial Release and craniosacral therapy: two powerful healing modalities that were once considered "woo woo" but have since become accepted by many mainstream medical professionals.
Because the connective-tissue system of the body is a three-dimensional, head-to-toe super highway for energy and information, ignoring one area of the body when you want to help another is going to be a problem. This system also stores pent-up emotions, so when someone experiences a trauma of any sort, the fascia is one of the ways to address healing.
3. We see "it's all in your head" as a good thing.
If therapists stick with their cookbook approaches and keep blinders on when they treat, they’ll never help clients truly heal. I’m not saying they won’t have success, because sometimes simple injuries heal well with basic techniques. What I’m saying is that for true, lasting change to occur in a system that’s been injured or ill, you can’t just treat the physical tissue or the one body part that hurts. You have to understand the thoughts, emotions, and soul behind the body.
You may have been told by a doctor about your diagnosis “It’s all in your head” (hopefully, not so abruptly). I see many clients who are so angry when they’re told this. But I look at that as a huge opportunity for healing.
When problems don’t show up on an MRI, or an X-ray, be glad. And realize that the mind-soul component of pain is very powerful. Be open to the idea that there’s something you haven’t learned yet that could change everything.
4. We give clients more personalized attention.
In the beginning of my career I practiced in several traditional physical therapy settings. I was asked to see two to three clients an hour, using aides or technicians (who were not licensed therapists) to guide exercises and never had time to fully address my clients' physical needs, let alone the depression or sadness they felt because they were injured. I also never had the time to connect with them between treatments to guide or support them.
Clients paid a copay with insurance covering the rest of the bill and followed the doctor’s orders as far as frequency and duration of therapy, no matter what they really needed for healing—which could be more OR less therapy.
When I burned out in this system, I went out on my own and created the physical therapy environment I knew my clients deserved and I wanted to give. I saw everyone for at least an hour, and I scheduled them for what they needed, with lots of support in between. The client had a resource, a friend, and a caring, skilled healer at their disposal to empower the healing process and teach them how to navigate integrating mind, body, and soul.
As you evaluate your own experience with physical therapy, think about what you’re paying for. Do you receive one-on-one attention for at least an hour, by the same therapist? Do you see the same therapist every time you attend a session? Do you practice your exercises in front of that same person? Are you given a way to connect after the session for guidance or support? Does your therapist have enough time to look at all of you? Does he or she ask you about your work, relationship, home, and spiritual life?
5. It's your body. It deserves the best.
It’s time we redefine healing. Physical therapists have an amazing opportunity to get to know their clients and really serve in a way many doctors can’t. They have a chance to be true healers. It’s important to foster this kind of relationship with all our health care givers. It’s time to demand it, actually. Until clients are educated about the differences, they’ll settle for outdated standards of care and then be disappointed. It’s time to be brave about how we teach people about healing.
The next time you need a physical therapist, get picky. Interview them over the phone and ask some of the questions above. Hear their voice. Get to know them. Get a feeling about how they do their job, and give yourself permission to choose someone else if one doesn’t feel good. It could mean the difference between simply getting "better" and learning lifelong tools that empower you to truly heal mind, body, and soul.