What is physiotherapy and what does a physiotherapist do?

  • August 31, 2018

Physiotherapy is an enabling profession which aims to help people move. Whether they are treating a marathon runner, a stroke victim or someone who has just had major heart surgery, a physio will almost invariably attempt to help their patient improve movement in some form.

Most patients, particularly when attending a private practice such as PhysioFIX, will see a physio due to a musculoskeletal pain episode of some sort. Improving movement in the affected area is central to reducing pain and vice versa. In fact, physio researchers have played an important role in recent developments in our understanding of pain and continue to do so.

Physiotherapists are evidence-based practitioners who work alongside GP’s and other health clinicians to plan and manage treatment in settings including private practice, hospitals and the community. In fact, GP’s refer more patients to physiotherapists than any other healthcare profession. Though medical and physio treatments may vary considerably, we are all working from a modern, scientific basis.

But what do they actually do?!

Saying you “got some physio” is a bit like saying you went to your GP to “get some medicine”. While this is of course sometimes what happens when you see a doctor, it is an over-simplification and implies that all treatments are the same.

A physio will typically begin by talking with the patient about why they’ve presented to the clinic. In many ways this is the most important part of the process and is referred to as the “subjective assessment”. This conversation will involve the immediate problem but also typically cover the patient’s history more broadly, for example occupation, previous illnesses and current exercise levels.

In turn the physio will examine the patient physically during the “objective assessment”, though the two assessments will often overlap considerably. This will involve taking measurements, palpating various landmarks in the painful area, observing the patient perform relevant activities (for example walking, getting out of a chair, gripping or perhaps doing a squat) and completing specific tests. Related areas will also be assessed, for example by testing hip movement for a patient with knee pain.

Treatment will typically follow and is guided by the various findings of the assessment. The physio will provide advice and education, for example suggesting ice or heat packs or whether or not to continue exercise and, importantly, giving specific exercises to complete at home. Hands on treatment may involve massage, muscle stretches and joint glides of various grades (manual therapy is what most people first think of when they hear “physio”!). Other interventions involve electrophysical agents such as therapeutic ultrasound or dry needling, which is similar to acupuncture. Treatment in modern physio is guided by research and by patient outcomes and will often be significantly different for any two patients. And it doesn’t always have to hurt!

Not just exercises and massage.

Physiotherapists have a role to play at practically every stage of life. We can assess infants to monitor their motor skill development and as they grow we help them deal with the pains and vulnerabilities of a growing body. We treat athletes, help those with pelvic floor dysfunction and work to prevent falls in the elderly. We even help sick patients in hospital to clear their airways of sputum, something which comes as a surprise to many physio students!

A huge part of recovering from pain and injury comes from understanding what is happening and how to best manage these issues. Rather than create a dependency on us, we aim to empower our patients to improve their health independently as much as possible. This is an important point that is central to modern physio practice and you will find few physios who try to convince you to keep coming back every week for the next six months.

What qualifications are required to practice as a physiotherapist?

Physiotherapy courses vary across the country and entry may be through a bachelor, masters or professional doctorate program. At a minimum a physio new grad will have completed four years of study, though many will have studied for longer due to the high entry marks for undergraduate courses. The final year of study generally involves clinical placements. Physiotherapists are required by law to be registered with the Physiotherapists Registration Board in the state or territory in which they are practising and must complete ongoing training each year.


Now you know what it is we actually do – why not make an appointment with one of our great physiotherapists.