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What I've Learned from being a Physical Therapy Patient

by Jasmine Marcus, PT, DPT


As much as I’ve learned in the past few years as physical therapy student, physical therapist, I’ve also learned a lot from the other side of the treatment table as a physical therapy patient. From rehabbing a sprained ankle in high school to checking in about an injury as a curious physical therapy student, I’ve been a physical therapy patient numerous times. Being on the receiving end of treatments has taught me things I couldn’t have learned in school, and has certainly made me a better clinician. Here are some of those lessons:

Educate all your physical therapy patients

In high school, I ruptured a ligament in my ankle while running cross-country. I was a physical therapy patient for several months and was put through the exercises, but given very little in the way of explanations. I spent years afterward wondering why my ankle never felt the same. At one point, as a pre-PT student, I mentioned the ligament to a physical therapist I knew, and said something about how it had “grown back together.”

Imagine my surprise when I learned that completely torn ligaments don’t magically reform. Now it made sense why the injured ankle wasn’t exactly the same as before – one of my ligaments was gone – but no one had ever let me know it would be gone for good. For this reason, I try to let patients know as much as possible about their injury and recovery, besides just telling them which exercises will help them.

Prepare for a plan B

As a PT student, I went to physical therapy to address a tendonitis issue. After several weeks of being a compliant patient, I became concerned that I wasn’t making any progress. I tried to bring it up with the physical therapist, which was hard because he was always triple booked. Rather than take a few minutes to reassess my injury or come up with a new plan, he told me I should go back to my doctor and seek medical intervention. This seemed like a drastic step for a simple injury, so I simply sought out PT elsewhere, but it cemented in my head the need to reassess my plans of care if patients aren’t progressing as expected.

Remember that physical therapy works!

I remember learning about transverses abdominal recruitment as a PT student and being fairly skeptical. If these muscles were really so important, why had I never heard of them before? Maybe my professor just had some weird obsession with the TA and they weren’t actually that essential. Regardless, I decided to put myself through TA progression exercises and was surprised by the results. I was able to stand up straighter, for longer and was stronger with other movement patterns. Now when I have a patient who thinks contracting her core seems silly, I share that I have gone through the exercises myself and have seen the benefits first-hand.

Put yourself in the patient’s shoes.

Fitting in a new home exercise routine can be tricky. When I’ve been in physical therapy before, it can take me a few days to get into a routine with my exercises. I’ve also been guilty of forgetting how to do a certain movement properly and even neglecting an exercise. When patients make these same mistakes, I know that I have been there too, and together we think up ways to increase adherence to the plan.

Keep it simple

Similarly, unless a patient is recovering from surgery or about to return to sport, I try to limit the number of exercises I assign. Three exercises done consistently is better than a dozen exercises forgotten. I remember from high school how rarely I got around to fitting in the full hour it took to do the 12 exercises assigned ankle strengthening HEP, and don't want to put the same burden on my patients.

Have you ever been a PT patient? What did that experience teach you?

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