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The Lesson For Today: The History of Physical Therapy

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The history of physical therapy is an ancient one, yet the main goals have remained the same: the restoration of mobility and rehabilitation of the patient.

The first documented account of physical therapy comes from the old friend of medicine, Hippocrates. In 460 BC, Hippocrates first described the use of manual manipulation in the form of massage and hydrotherapy. The benefits of such procedures were understood at that early time and are still in practice to this day. It was not until the 1800s that the practitioners of physical therapy formed into one cohesive group. The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy was established in England and gave rise to other such organizations with the aim of providing first rate care to those who needed it. Physiotherapy is simply a term used by other countries and is the same as physical therapy in the United States. Whichever term used, the practice, idea, and procedures are the same.

During World War One, those trained in physical therapy, called reconstruction aids, helped the soldiers with their devastating wounds and injuries. Many of these reconstruction aids were nurses and were crucial with the healing process of the soldiers. It was not until 1921 that the United States saw the first organized group of physical therapists. Formed by Mary McMillan, it was called the American Women’s Physical Therapeutic Association. This group soon became the American Physical Therapy Association with the inclusion of men. With the change of name came a change or curriculum and requirements that physical therapists were to meet. The occupation became more formalized and professional and was soon recognized in the medical community as a very viable form of treatment for the injured.

The history of physical therapy met another landmark during the polio epidemic. The therapists were instrumental in the treatment and rehabilitation of polio patients. Though the primary procedures were exercise and massage during this time, polio patients did derive benefits from physical therapy. It was during the 1950’s that the use of manipulation and focus on the joints were practiced.

In the 1970s, the American Physical Therapy Association formed the orthopedic practice heralding in the first instance of specialized practice for the group. The history of physical therapy so far has changed and grown much. By this time, therapists were practicing in a number of places; these settings are familiar to all modern day physical therapists and include hospitals, nursing homes, and outpatient clinics.

During the 1980’s with the advent of the computer and other various technologies, physical therapy took a more advanced turn. Ultrasounds and electric stimulators became common in the practice. The history of physical therapy changed dramatically in the wake of the new technology and the therapists were able to employ these tools in innovative ways to help their patients.

The history of physical therapy has changed much over the centuries and is still evolving. Each new procedure, innovation, and technique hones the craft and improves the capability at which the therapists can aid in the rehabilitation of the patient.


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