Learning and living true physiotherapy – Part one
I have been working in Physiotherapy for over 30 years; this article is inspired by my wonderful patients and an esteemed fellow physiotherapist.
I graduated from Sydney University in 1984 and worked in teaching hospitals for the next 2 years. For the following 6 years I worked in private practice, learning as much as I could from more experienced physios, but I found there was often an imposing hardness to the way physiotherapy was practised, which led me overseas in search of a more gentle way to treat the whole body.
In Boston, USA, I did courses introducing me to the importance of the connective tissue in the body. I experimented with more gentle ways of releasing this tissue for my many clients that had complex chronic spinal pain.
I came back to Australia in 1997 and moved to the Northern Rivers region of NSW, working in Community Health for 4 years full time and then 4 years part time. I treated the full range of ages and conditions, from babies to the elderly. Since 2002 I have been self-employed, working in a wonderful complementary healing clinic called Universal Medicine in Goonellabah, and for 2 years until December 2016 I also worked in a family medical practice nearby. Over the years I have undergone such a transformation in myself, and my work, that the way I am with patients, and how I approach my treatments with them now, is a world away from even 15 years ago.
It has often been suggested to me by patients and other physios that – ‘you need to write about the work you are doing, share it with other practitioners, physios and people who are used to the old style of physio’ – and it has dawned on me that how I live, how I work, how I support my patients physically, emotionally and energetically is what I would call True Physiotherapy.
Almost all the physios I have met from when I graduated to now have had a genuine care for people, and they are very skilled at observing movement and analysing where the body is moving or performing in a dysfunctional way. The fundamental approach of standard physiotherapy is to problem-solve and implement methods of treatment that correct the dysfunctional joint movement, or excess muscle/soft tissue tension. All with the goal of decreasing pain and improving function.
There are two main problems with this approach:
Having a treatment driven by a goal that the practitioner wants the body to achieve is imposing. It does not allow for the body’s natural healing processes to take place. I remember feeling it just wasn’t helping the body heal by pushing on joints to get them to loosen up or getting my patient to push their leg or arm against my arm and then stretch their limb forcefully for more joint movement and muscle length.
The way physios are educated and practically trained is to focus on the one main area of physical dysfunction and symptoms. It is not about considering the body as a whole, and certainly doesn’t take into account the emotional status or energetic vitality of the person.
As a result, physios mostly look at the body with a very narrow focus – this reductionist approach may help an acute condition of one joint or body part and a few muscles, but it does not truly support the many patients who have chronic complex physical and emotional problems.
As a young physio, when I worked in this way I was always uneasy as I knew this way was a) not considering big parts of the picture that made up the whole story for the patient and b) treating them in this narrow way was imposing on the body: it was me saying, ‘I know how you should be and move, and this is the technique I will use to fix you’. Essentially, I realised this came with a force – even though I thought I was doing the ‘right’ thing. Many patients say to me now that they are often more sore for days or weeks after they have had standard physiotherapy treatment than they were before.
What was making me uneasy in treating in this standard way was that it was not taking into account the body’s ability to heal.
The body has a remarkable intelligence to continually heal and bring itself to a greater level of balance and harmony. This includes everything in the body – the organ systems, nervous system and the movement system – the musculoskeletal system.
Understanding the body in this way opened me up to consider the person in a truly holistic way – as a physical being, an emotional being and an energetic being.
When I was a young physio, I was not trained in understanding how emotional stresses or poor vitality affected the body, leading to organ dysfunction and physical dysfunction. All I was focussed on was what was the physical problem, and how do I fix it. Now I consider all these factors and help support the person to understand the deeper disharmony in their body that eventually causes the physical problem. I gently assist the body to enhance its natural healing process and support the person to reconnect to their natural quality of gentleness.