Physical therapy, also referred to as physiotherapy, is a branch of medical science that deals with the treatment of injury and/or disorder by using physical methods. It is performed under the guidance of a physical therapist (PT) or an assistant (PTA). During a physiotherapy session, a therapist may use heat, cold, exercise, and at times, electricity. Like other medical fields, this field has evolved tremendously. Let's take a look about the brief history of physical therapy.
How it all started...
The practice of physical therapy can be traced back to about 460 BC, when physicians Hippocrates and Hector used massage therapy and hydrotherapy (water therapy) to treat their patients. Massage therapy is a technique of physiotherapy, whereby basic hand movements are used to reduce stress, relieve pain, and stimulate healing.
In the eighteenth century, after the evolution of orthopedics, several machines were developed to help treat patients afflicted with diseases and disorders. They accomplished this by conducting a systemic exercise of the related joints and muscles. These practices eventually lead to the formation of physical therapy as a medical field. The first documented case of physiotherapy as a profession can be traced back to Per Hernik Ling, the "Father of Swedish Gymnastics". He was responsible for founding the Royal Central Institute of Gymnastics (RCIG) in 1813, where people administered healing massages and exercises. This origin is evidenced in the Swedish term for a physical therapist, "sjukgymnast", which means, a person who teaches gymnastics to people who are ill.
The earliest documented record of the founding of a professional group for physical therapy, was the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, in England, in 1894. It was a group formed by trained nurses with the aim to provide physiotherapy services to the general public. Following this, several institutes started training programs for physiotherapy, for example, in 1913, the University of Otago, New Zealand, established the School of Physiotherapy.
However, it was during the World War I (1914-1918), that physiotherapy was performed widely as a rehabilitation therapy for people who were injured in the war. People employed for such rehabilitative work were known as reconstruction aides, and they were trained nurses having background of physical education and massage therapy.
Shortly after this, in 1921, Mary McMillan (the first physical therapy aide) founded the American Women's Physical Therapeutic Association, which was later changed to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA). She contributed a lot to the reconstruction aide services, and came to be known as "The Mother of Physical Therapy". It was in the same year, that the first research paper on physical therapy was published in the US. The year 1921, was regarded as a landmark, in the field of physical therapy, as national accreditation of physiotherapy programs was introduced.
In the subsequent years, more research studies were conducted and papers were published. In 1924, the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation was established to fight the polio epidemic. Till the 1940s, common physiotherapy practices included massage, exercise, and traction. It was only in the early 1950s that manipulative therapy for the spine and joint pain was introduced in the British Commonwealth countries. It is to be noted that until this time, physiotherapy was practiced only in hospitals.
In 1956, physical therapists, APTA, and medical researchers jointly worked and cooperated on the Salk vaccine (first polio vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk) trials, which led to the development of a polio vaccine. By this time, physiotherapy was being practiced as a common health care profession in the US. In 1974, clinical specializations in physical therapy was made possible, with the foundation of the Orthopedic Section by APTA.
With the development of computers and technology in the 1980s, more advancement was observed in the physiotherapy techniques. For example, electrical stimulators and iontophoresis devices were introduced for practicing physiotherapy.
Nowadays, from a layman having back pain to a sportsperson suffering from a sports injury, physical therapy has become a common procedure for treatment of musculoskeletal injury and disorders.