You and Your Physical Therapist for RA

What to consider when choosing this partner in your physical therapy for rheumatoid arthritis.

Winnie Yu
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Perhaps you have a foot injury that’s keeping you from your daily walks. Or maybe you’re battling the aches and pains of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Perhaps you threw out your back during a spirited tennis match.

Whatever it is, you probably need a physical therapist (PT) to help you recover and regain your mobility. Here’s how to find the right PT for you:

Check your insurance plan first. Most states now allow people to go directly to a PT without a physician’s referral—Alabama, Indiana, Michigan and Oklahoma are the exceptions. (Check with your health insurance company if they require that you see your primary care physician first.) Your insurance plan may also limit the PT you see to one of their preferred providers. Keep in mind that the PT you choose is up to you: You’re under no obligation to work with a person your doctor recommends.

Find out whether the PT is licensed. Make sure the PT you choose is licensed in your state. If you receive therapy from a PT assistant, they should be supervised by a licensed physical therapist. “If the PT isn’t licensed in your state, your treatment won’t be covered by your insurance,” says Mary Ann Wilmarth, PT, DPT, a physical therapist in Cambridge, MA, and spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association. “And if the PT isn’t licensed, it means they haven’t necessarily met state requirements.”

Check out your PT’s education. These days, a growing number of PTs have a doctorate in physical therapy (DPT), allowing them to screen, diagnose and treat a problem. In the past, most PTs had a master’s degree and relied on doctors to do the screening, diagnosis and make a referral.  “It’s much more autonomous now,” Wilmarth says. “By 2020, all PTs will need a doctorate.”

Go with a specialist. Like many professionals, PTs can specialize in a field, which means they’ve undergone extensive training in that area. PTs have eight specialty areas that are certified by the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties: orthopedics, sports, geriatrics, pediatrics, cardiopulmonary, neurology, women’s health and clinical electrophysiology.

Find someone you like. Chances are, you’ll see your PT often. Rehab sessions may be once or twice a week, maybe even more. “You want to be able to connect with your PT,” Wilmarth says. “They should know where you’re coming from and help you set goals that are realistic, whether it’s getting back to running marathons or working in your yard. It’s important to have someone who is listening to you and with whom you can talk honestly.”

Make sure they treat you properly. A good PT will take your health history, do an exam and ask about your goals before developing a plan of care. Your PT should also regularly monitor your progress. “They should be constantly reevaluating where you are and see if your goals need to be readjusted, so your treatment may change,” Wilmarth says. “They have to see how you respond to treatment and whether you need more or less.”

To find a PT near you, visit the American Physical Therapy Association.

April 2013