Physical therapy and the human movement system

man athlete running by the sea at sunset outdoors
Physical therapists not only treat pain and injury, they can also improve your body movement performance. (istockphoto.com)

Do you know that your body has a movement system?  Left uncontrolled, it can be the source of injuries, aches and pains; however by working with a human movement expert it can be the rock-solid foundation for fitness and long-term health.  

Let’s be honest, physical therapy is widely associated with being injured, suffering pain, and the inability to perform physical activities that you enjoy.  Physical therapy is often considered a last resort type of treatment for people who are post-surgery or who have exhausted other options. While all these associations are true, physical therapy also has a completely different identity that you may not know about. 

Within the world of fitness and health, there has been a lack of identity for physical therapists as a profession. There are organizations and people working towards creating an identity for physical therapists, but our identity is still not completely apparent, especially to the general public or to other healthcare and fitness professionals. The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) recently adopted the Human Movement System in 2013-14 as the identity for physical therapy. The human movement system is the body system for which physical therapists have our expertise and responsibility. When you think of human movement, you should think of physical therapy.

What is the human movement system?

As defined by the University of Washington in St. Louis’ Program in Physical Therapy, the human movement system is, “a system of physiological organ systems that interact to produce movement of the body and its parts.” This means that physical therapists are experts on physical human movement that involves the musculoskeletal and neuromuscular systems. 

It is important to understand that physical therapists are the experts in the movement system, just as we know a cardiologist specializes in the cardiovascular system, the neurologist specializes in the nervous system, the podiatrist the foot, and so on. 

In fact, physical therapy is really educating you about your body and teaching you how to move properly to continue the activities in which you love. We work to give you the knowledge and treatment/training plan to be pain-free on a daily basis. We assess and design movement programs to put you in the best position for success. 

You know the friend who doesn’t get their car oil changed regularly; everything appears to be working great until that one day they are calling you for help because their car broke down. This is exactly what happens to your body. You are feeling good and think everything is great, then all of a sudden you wake up one morning with pain so bad you can’t stand up straight. This is a product of your movement system slowly breaking down over time.

Differentiating Physical Therapists

You may be thinking, ‘What about the orthopedic physician?’ They specialize in muscles, soft tissues, bones and joints. However, they do not assess and address active physical movement, such as walking, because that is not their area of expertise. Some also tend to not assess how one area of the body relates to the other. For example, problems at the hip cause a lot of back pain. If you have back pain and go to a physician that is a back specialist, they are often going to evaluate the back to try to find a problem with your back. They may not relate your back pain to a hip problem, which becomes problematic, especially when treatments such as injections, medications, and surgery are brought to the table.  Orthopedic physicians don’t assess and treat the human movement system through actual movement because it is the physical therapist’s area of expertise. This is the case with many physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and chiropractors.

I point out those professions because they are often the ones that most people will see first when they have pain or a problem. Another problem is that a lot of physicians, nurse practitioners, physician’s assistants, and chiropractors also do not know the role of a physical therapist or how the profession has evolved. There is plenty of good research available that proves physical therapy can help prevent surgeries, get rid of pain, and get people back to work and activities in which they love. This is not discounting any of those professionals or surgeries, all of which are necessary and have their place; however, so does physical therapy.

The majority of pains and injuries actually develop over time and are caused by the movement habits we perform on a daily basis. There are always signs a long time before the symptoms of pain and injuries develop. The signs lie within the movement system that is constantly adapting as you stand, walk, sit, run, lift, and bend. The repetitive movements that occur in your job and every day life shape your movement system.  Physical therapists find these signs and correct them to reduce your risk of pain and injury by improving your movement performance.  

The identity of physical therapy is no longer defined as purely reactive, but actually more of a proactive service! 

Being proactive does not insure prevention. I actually don’t think we can prevent pain and injury. I feel that every person will have pain and injury at some point in their life because we move. There are many factors involved in our movement and life, a lot of which are out of our control.  However, we can work to help avoid pain and injury by improving quality of movement.  And, at the onset of pain or injury we can manage it quickly to get you back to your previous activity level. The ultimate goal is to have you feeling good and happy. 

As with any profession there is inconsistency within physical therapy when it comes to skill level, and the definition of our role, and as a profession we still need to progress and evolve.  But there are a lot of physical therapists that are really good at what they do.  Physical therapists are the human movement system specialists.  We are not only associated with pain and injury, but with movement performance in all aspects of life.

Shaun Logan is the resident Human Movement Expert and Physical Therapist at Philly Personal Training who can repair, improve, and tune the movement system for a more effective and lasting fitness program. Shaun holds degrees Kinesiology and a Doctor of Physical Therapy.


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