evolution of physical therapy
September 22, 2016

The Connection with the Military:

The actual practice of physical therapy began in World War I as a way to treat wounded soldiers. At that time, the term “reconstruction aides” was synonymous with the medical professionals now called physical therapists. World War II brought different types of injuries to the American soldier’s musculoskeletal system. Medical advancements made it possible for more and more soldiers to survive these types of wounds and require rehabilitation made possible by this type of therapy. Today, rehabilitation programs designed by a physical therapist are the key to restoring range of motion and mobility for injured military personnel.


In addition to treating wounded soldiers, physical therapy and its rehabilitative and restorative techniques became recognized during the Poliomyelitis epidemic of the 1920s and ‘30s. Patients who survived a polio infection faced debilitating muscle weakness and sometimes paralysis. Therapists would work with polio patients to create ongoing therapeutic exercises to restore mobility and retrain muscle movement. With medical science advances, this field has exploded into numerous specialties including but not limited to:

  • sports medicine,
  • wound care,
  • acute and post-operative rehabilitation,
  • pulmonary and cardiovascular rehab,
  • long-term management of lymphedema,
  • neurologic rehabilitation.

Patients ranging from children, women, athletes, men, to seniors benefit from this medical practice.

Treating Diseases:

Exercise, massage and stretching regimens created by therapists are an integral part of treating and managing symptoms of chronic diseases such as arthritis, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, and old injuries of the musculoskeletal system. Treatment plans are carried out not only in a clinical setting but with home exercises as well.

Did you know episodes of positional vertigo can be resolved in as little as one session with a physical therapist?

People who suffer from this form of vertigo have a malfunction of the vestibular system within the inner ear causing brief, yet serious bouts of dizziness with movement of the head.

Therapists can also include:

  • heat and cold therapy,
  • electrode therapy,
  • targeted stretches,
  • manipulation and manual therapy,
  • radiation,
  • sound waves as part of the rehabilitation process.

The Evolution of the Professional Organization:

Prior to the integration of men into the field, women dominated the profession in the 1920s and ’30s resulting in the formation of the American Women’s Physical Therapy Association. Mary McMillan led the organization as its first president.

The professional organization evolved further during the 1930s changing its name to the American Physiotherapy Association; and again in the late 1940s to its current name of the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA).


Today’s therapists are highly trained and educated medical professionals. What once started out as an undergraduate Bachelor’s degree, evolved in the 1990’s to a Master’s degree and now requires a Doctorate degree to practice. Getting into this field is highly competitive with only 228 accredited programs in the country. In order to practice graduates of the Doctorate (DPT) program must pass a state medical board exam and obtain their license.

As an alternative, and in response to the growth in this field, an Associate degree as a PT assistant was created in the 1960s. PTAs assist with exercises and treatments during therapy sessions, but they cannot perform patient evaluations. There are 333 assistant programs that are accredited in the United States.

Where Do They Practice?

Physical therapists often practice in a private outpatient clinic setting, but they can also treat patients in hospitals, nursing and rehabilitation centers, home health settings and schools./

Some physical therapists, that specialize in sports medicine, travel with professional athletes and work within their training facilities. Their job is to evaluate players and work with them to prevent injuries, treat existing conditions and rehabilitate and manage old injuries.


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