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Physical Therapy Assistants


The practice of treating ailments with heat and exercise is very old. For many centuries, people have known of the therapeutic value of hot baths, sunlight, and massage. The ancient Greeks and the Romans used these methods, and there is a long tradition of them in the far northern part of Europe.

Two factors spurred the development of physical therapy techniques during this century: the world wars and epidemic poliomyelitis. These catastrophes created large numbers of young but seriously disabled patients.

World War I brought about great strides in medicine and in our understanding of how the human body functions. Among these was the realization that physical therapy could help shorten the recovery time of the wounded. A Reconstruction Aide corps in the U.S. Army was organized to perform physical therapy in military hospitals, and the Army organized the first department of physical therapy in 1916. Training programs were hastily started to teach physiotherapy, as physical therapy used to be called, to those administering services.

The American Physical Therapy Association was organized in 1921, thus establishing physical therapy's professional stature. In 1925, the association took on the responsibility of identifying approved training programs for physical therapy personnel.

During World War II, physical therapy's benefits were recognized. Because medical teams in the armed forces were able to rehabilitate seriously injured patients, this field gained acceptance from the medical world.

Between the wars, polio became a major health problem, especially because it left many of its victims paralyzed. In 1944, the United States suffered the worst polio epidemic in its history. Public demand for improved physical therapy services led to more therapists and improved techniques. As knowledge grew and the number of people in the field grew, physical therapy services were redefined and expanded in scope. Physical therapy is now available in many settings outside the hospital. Currently there is preventive musculoskeletal screening for children in pediatric clinics and public schools, therapy in industrial settings for workers recovering from injuries on the job, therapy for the elderly in nursing homes and in community health agencies, and therapy for people with athletic injuries in sports medicine clinics.

The physical therapy assistant's occupation is rather new. It was developed in 1967 to help meet this greatly expanded interest in physical therapy services. Physical therapy assistants and physical therapy aides (another new occupational category, requiring less education than an assistant) specialize in some of the less complex treatments that were formerly administered by the physical therapist.

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