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PT or PCP – Who to See When You Have Pain

Written by Casey Miller, PT, DPT, OCS, Clinic Director – East Beach Norfolk, VA

Many people find themselves in their primary care physician’s (PCP) office when they have aches and pains, but is that really the best place to start? If you’re dealing with the flu or an infection, your PCP is the best bet. But what if you wake up with back pain or your shoulder has been hurting after a weekend of painting?

Research suggests that physical therapists (PT) are significantly better at managing musculoskeletal complaints than PCPs. Physical therapists study musculoskeletal medicine at a doctoral level, while almost half of the American medical schools don’t require any formal training in musculoskeletal medicine. Despite this, musculoskeletal complaints account for nearly 25% of patient complaints in the primary care setting.

In one study, physical therapists, medical interns, medical residents, and physician specialists were given an examination to test their knowledge in musculoskeletal medicine. Aside from orthopedics, physical therapists (and even physical therapy students) scored significantly higher than other healthcare providers including primary care physicians and physician specialists (see chart below).

There is also a time and cost savings perk to seeing a PT first. In one study, when a patient saw a PCP first, physical therapy claims increased by 67% (meaning they required more extensive treatment), doctor office visits increased by 60% and costs increased by 123% compared to when patients accessed physical therapy directly without a physician referral.

What conditions can a physical therapist help with?

PTs are trained to assess and treat musculoskeletal conditions, or issues involving muscles, bones, joints, ligaments, cartilage, and nerves. Typical musculoskeletal conditions include things like back pain (disc issues, spinal stenosis, degenerative disc/joint disease), muscle strains, and tendon injuries such as rotator cuff tears, arthritis, ligament sprains, and so much more.

PTs are also a solid choice for people without pain but struggling with certain activities. PT’s rigorous education makes them movement dysfunction experts. By optimizing movement patterns, PTs can help improve performance in a wide variety of people, from those trying to climb the stairs with greater ease to top-level athletes looking for a performance edge. Many PTs also treat balance issues and dizziness to help decrease someone’s chance of falling.

A Doctor of Physical Therapy has adequate training to rule out any serious conditions. If you do end up in their office and they determine further medical follow-up is necessary, they can make prompt referrals to other medical providers so you will always get the care you need.

What should you expect at physical therapy?

A physical therapist will perform a thorough evaluation on your first visit and use this information to design a treatment program that’s specific to you. This program may involve any combination of manual therapy (hands-on treatment), therapeutic exercise, and education depending on what your needs and goals are.

In a world where we can have something delivered to our door the same day with the click of a button, it can be second nature to expect immediate results. When it comes to recovery of musculoskeletal issues, however, this is often unrealistic. While a quick fix such as an injection or a pill can be tempting, these often only mask symptoms and provide short term relief. Those dedicated to putting in the work at physical therapy will find lasting relief. After all, they don’t call it ​physical ​ therapy for nothing. Rest assured though, a good PT can design a program for anyone regardless of current ability level, so there is no need to “get in shape” or have a certain level of fitness to start physical therapy.

How do I get started?

In most states, physical therapists are allowed to treat with Direct Access, meaning you don’t need a physician’s referral to see one. A visit to the PCP will often land you with a physical therapy referral anyway, so save the time, effort, and extra office visit and call the PT directly.

At Phoenix Physical Therapy, most of our local physical therapists have their Doctorate, have undergone residency and/or fellowship training, and have advanced training and certification in manual therapy and orthopedics. You’ll be in the best hands! Call us today and get on the road to recovery!

1. JD Childs, et al. A description of physical therapists’ knowledge in managing musculoskeletal conditions. ​BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders. ​ 2005. 6(32)