Careers & Education

The history of physical therapy

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Physical therapy is critcal care needed by so many - from the young to the very old.
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The history of physical therapy

Physical therapy encompasses scientific physical procedures used in the treatment of patients with a disability, disease, or injury to achieve and maintain functional rehabilitation and to prevent malfunction or deformity. Treatments are designed to minimize residual physical disability, to hasten convalescence, and to contribute to the patient's comfort and well-being. Physical therapy is prescribed for patients with varied orthopedic, neurological, vascular, and respiratory conditions, which may be the result of congenital malfunction, disability acquired through disease or trauma, or inherited dysfunction. Physical therapy is helping the severely wounded veterans to recover more quickly and to adapt to prosthetic devices when they are needed.

The history of physical therapy is interesting. Most of the physical agents employed in modern physical therapy were used in ancient times. Early Greek and Roman writings refer to the beneficial effects of sun and water, and both exercise and massage were used by the ancient Chinese, Persians, Egyptians, and Greeks.

The field of physical therapy in modern times was established in Britain in the latter part of the 19th century. Shortly thereafter American orthopedic surgeons began to train young women graduates of physical-education schools to care for patients in doctors' offices and in hospitals. The history of physical therapy contains anecdotes of these young women treating thousands of patients in 1916 when a severe epidemic of poliomyelitis struck New York and New England. The first school of physical therapy was established at Walter Reed Army Hospital, Washington, D.C., after the outbreak of World War I, and 14 additional schools were established soon afterward. About 800 therapists, called reconstruction aides, were trained and utilized in military service.

After World War II physical therapy became widely used in the care of patients. Among the reasons for the great increase in demand for physical-therapy services were the impressive results obtained in treating those injured in battle and industry during World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars; the increase in chronic disability resulting from the larger number of older persons in the population; and the rapid development of hospital- and medical-care programs.

Placement in a job is the next step in rehabilitation. Although a person might have acquired great facility in the use of supportive devices, he or she might require training in new skills under new working conditions. People who never acquired a skill or who have very limited skills because of disability, or because of disadvantages of environment or education, might require training in work appropriate to their capacities. Formal schooling might remove barriers for those with basic ability.

Adaptation and use of special tools or equipment can also help. The elimination of barriers through the use of ramps for people who cannot climb stairs, automobiles that are specially equipped for those with limited use of their limbs, and other adaptations can add to self-sufficiency and independence. Rehabilitation counselors who provide follow-up services can help to assure the disabled person's success in competitive employment.

Physical therapy, occupational therapy and rehabilitation therapy are all intertwined in the history of occupational therapy—each of equal importance in achieving the ultimate goal of making an individual as self sufficient and productive as possible.

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