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Gynecology appointments aren’t the only ones that went digital in 2020. Physical therapy appointments did too! And physical therapists suspect that tele-PT popularity will continue to rise moving forward.
“I predict that the telehealth physical therapy trend is going to continue,” says physical therapist Grayson Wickham, DPT, founder of Movement Vault, a digital movement education platform. “Do I think there will be as many online visits as during the [COVID-19] pandemic? Probably not. But I suspect that most clinics will offer at least some virtual appointments.”
Read on for the skinny on this telehealth PT trend.
Be honest: Is telehealth physical therapy effective?
*Ronnie Coleman voice* Yeah, buddy! It is!
“To be honest, at the beginning of the pandemic, when I began offering telehealth services, I was skeptical,” says Wickham. But he’s been surprised by just how effective it’s been.
“After a year of doing it, I have seen just how effective telemedicine physical therapy really can be,” he says.
Christine Scarano Ward, DPT, a New Jersey-based physical therapist at NJ Sports Performance Lab and expert with Theradynamics, agrees. “There is a lot of education that a physical therapist can do virtually, such as posture re-education, workstation setup assessments, and verbal cues.”
In a pandemic, the main benefit of telehealth is that it allows people to access care without the risk of exposure through physical contact.
But aside from that, telemedicine physical therapy is also far more accessible than in-person care.
For one thing, “telemedicine is just really convenient,” says Wickham.
Think about it: In-person PT requires hopping in a car and dealing with traffic and parking or reloading your MetroCard and bopping on a subway. There’s no commute time or transportation fare for telemedicine. All you have to do is open your laptop or other device from wherever you are.
Heck, you don’t even have to brush your teeth if you don’t want to!
Telehealth PT also relieves parents of the need to find child care.
“Because the barriers of entry decrease with telehealth, I haven’t had any cancellations since I started offering telemedicine physical therapy,” Wickham notes.
The biggest downside of tele-PT is that you lose out on hands-on adjustment, which many physical therapists use as part of treatment.
“Manual therapy, massage, and stretching are effective treatment options for mobilizing the joint and getting blood flow to the muscle while ensuring that the patient is in good form,” says Scarano Ward.
And while digital devices do transmit sound waves (yay, technology!), they do not allow therapists to reach through the screen and touch their patients, meaning telehealth PT removes the opportunity for hands-on care.
“While there are a number of verbal cues we can give patients,” Scarano Ward says, “there is some lost benefit when you can’t deliver hands-on adjustments.”
She notes that when a physical therapist puts their hands on you, “it can also serve as emotional reassurance that someone is invested in your progress and well-being.” This is also lost when care moves online.
Of course, there are ways for physical therapists to work around that. “We can teach people how to do their own manual therapy with the help of lacrosse balls and foam rollers,” says Wickham.
Hate to break it to you, but just as there are some pretty meh baristas and doctors and journalists out there, there are also some average PTs!
“You really want to make sure you’re working with a good physical therapist,” says Scarano Ward. “A good PT over telehealth is going to be far more effective than a less-good PT in person.”
Signs of a good physical therapist:
- They’re certified.
- They’ve worked with people with conditions similar to yours in the past.
- Their communication style aligns with yours.
- They’re able to apply a variety of treatment methods.
- They teach about body mechanics instead of just demoing exercises/stretches.
You also need to do your PT homework
If you’re a PT newbie, you may not be aware that physical therapists usually prescribe homework (a few exercises and stretches) to their patients.
And no, that homework is not optional.
“As PTs we give you the bricks, but as the patient you have to be the one to build the castle,” says Wickham. “And that includes doing your homework.” (Great metaphor, BTW, right?)
No doubt, even if your insurance eats some of the cost, a PT appointment can still put you out $50 to $150 per session.
If personalized physical therapy isn’t within your budget, consider looking to a physical therapy app such as:
“These offerings give you access to a skilled PT anywhere in the world, at any time, and for a very, very affordable price,” says Wickham. (Movement Vault, for example, costs just $10.00 a month.)
Gabrielle Kassel (she/her) is a queer sex educator and wellness journalist who is committed to helping people feel the best they can in their bodies. In addition to Healthline, her work has appeared in publications such as Shape, Cosmopolitan, Well+Good, Health, Self, Women’s Health, Greatist, and more! In her free time, Gabrielle can be found coaching CrossFit, reviewing pleasure products, hiking with her border collie, or recording episodes of the podcast she co-hosts called Bad In Bed. Follow her on Instagram @Gabriellekassel.