Physiotherapists can help family members in many different ways to achieve optimal health. This article covers the role of the physiotherapist in health care and what you or your child can expect from a visit to a physiotherapist.

What is a physiotherapist?

Physiotherapists help people to become mobile after an operation, illness or accident – exercising limbs, strengthening weak muscles and ensuring that optimal movement is gained and maintained throughout the body. They also work with pregnant women to help them achieve a balanced posture and ease of movement in pregnancy.

Physiotherapists also work with the elderly to ensure they remain active and well, and with children who may have developmental problems or congenital issues such as cerebral palsy or spina bifida.

While there is evidence of physical therapy being used thousands of years ago in China and Greece, physiotherapy really expanded after World War II, when thousands of injured soldiers needed treatment in hospital, spinal units and chest clinics. Today, physiotherapists undergo four years of training (involving a combination of academic study and clinical experience) before they are qualified to practise.

Some of the vital roles of a physiotherapist include:

  • Keeping the limbs flexible and moving in people who are on long-term bed rest or who are seriously ill – this helps prevent infection, clots and contracted muscles
  • Helping those who have had major surgery get back on their feet
  • Pregnancy care, for example pelvic problems
  • Keeping lungs clear and functioning in conditions that affect respiratory function, for example, cystic fibrosis
  • Working with those who have had sports injuries
  • Working with disabled children and adults
  • Working with problems related to the brain and nervous system, for example, following a head injury
  • Helping people recover from burns
  • Occupational therapy work – preventing accidents in the workplace
  • Supporting the elderly to recover from hip fractures and other problems
  • Rehabilitating people who have suffered a stroke

As well as working in the hospital environment, some physiotherapists also work in the community in their own practice and take referrals from doctors. They will often be part of a team at a local medical clinic. Some physiotherapists will also come and visit people in their own home as part of a hospital outpatient service.

You can also find physiotherapists working in the corporate environment, educational institutions, gyms and rest homes.

Physios work with a myriad of mechanical, electrical and support aids and tools to help patient recovery and movement, including hydrotherapy baths, specially equipped gyms and electrical apparatus to stimulate muscle movement.

When should I see a physiotherapist?

Most people seek the services of a physio when they have suffered an accident of some sort – anything from a broken bone, severe strain or frozen shoulder – or have a chronic problem such as back or neck pain.

During pregnancy you may expereince back pain or pelvic pain as the ligaments soften, due to the relaxing effect of the pregnancy hormone, progesterone. A physiotherapist will be able to recommend and teach exercises to help strengthen the supporting muscles and advise on lifting and posture.

Children may benefit from physiotherapy when they have:

  • Sports injuries
  • Broken bones – a physio might be needed to ensure your child regains full use of broken arms, legs or other bones
  • Disabilities such as spina bifida, cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis
  • Lung problems – such as a bad bout of pneumonia
  • Heart problems – congenital heart problems where your child might need extra attention

If you or your child has some ongoing pain, joint or muscle injury that will not heal, ask your doctor for a referral to a physiotherapist.

If your child needs to see a physiotherapist because of an injury there should be no cost to you, as this will be covered by ACC. If you see a physiotherapist privately it will cost around $35 for a 20 minute consultation or up to around $90 for a one hour consultation.

How do I find a physiotherapist?

  • Ask your doctor for a referral (ACC will cover accident related treatments)
  • Look in the Yellow Pages of the phone book
  • Call one of the professional organisations listed below
  • Ask friends, family, colleagues for referrals
  • Phone your local hospital and speak to someone in the physiotherapy department to ask for a private practitioner operating in your area
  • Visit one of the websites listed below

What will they do?

  • Find out what the problem is by asking you questions about your symptoms or about what happened to your child
  • Examine the injured part of the body
  • Assess what seems to be causing the problem by putting limbs through a range of movements
  • They may examine you or your child’s posture, check body strength and flexibility, test reflexes and lung function
  • Make a diagnosis of the problem
  • The physio may require X-rays or other tests to help determine the problem
  • They will then discuss and then implement a treatment plan – this will often involve a range of exercises to improve function and different types of massage
  • They may use a range of aids to help you regain movement such as limb supports, walking frames, neck braces
  • Teach you or your child ways to prevent the problem getting worse or occurring again.

What can I do?

  • Encourage the whole family to keep fit and healthy
  • Walk or exercise regularly with your children
  • Help the whole family to stay flexible with gentle stretching
  • Seek help early if anyone suffers sprains or injuries
  • Ensure that you inform your physiotherapist if you are pregnant, or think that you may be pregnant.

Useful Websites & Articles:

For more information on the role of the Osteopath or other Health Professionals, visit our articles in this section.


Website of the New Zealand Society of Physiotherapists


Information for the public from The Physiotherapy Board of New Zealand

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Kimberley Paterson is a writer and public relations expert living in Whangaparaoa. She had an initial career as a registered nurse and has spent the last 20 years writing about health and well-being.

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