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Physical Therapy: A Brief History

Swedish Gymnasts, American Soldiers, and the Entire World

Developed over two centuries, physical therapy has earned its place as a respectable profession, dedicated to helping people continue their active lifestyles. What started as a rudimentary treatment only available to a select few has become a well-respected profession all over the world.

Pehr Henrik Ling, the father of Swedish gymnastics, created the first physical therapy clinic in 1813 when he founded the Royal Central Institute of Gymnastics as a place where athletes could receive massages, muscular correction, and exercise.

In the United States, physical therapy didn’t gain prominence until the polio epidemic of 1916 and World War I. PTs began using passive movements to treat muscles that had been weakened from polio. President Franklin Delanore Roosevelt was among those who underwent various therapies for the disease.

Following WWI, the U.S. Army trained “reconstruction aids” to help rehabilitate injured soldiers returning from war. During the 1920s and 1930s, partnerships between PTs and the medical community boosted the profession’s credibility. However, the army’s need for PTs declined after the war, and the military suspended the training program.

Following WWII, new advances caused PTs to reconsider what physical therapy could really do for people. Not only could they slow muscular atrophy and maintain existing muscular function, but through new methods, they could also strengthen and repair muscle tissue. Then, in 1952, two PTs posited that an active recovery for cardiac rehabilitation might be better than a passive one. Modern physical therapy began to take shape and develop more independently of the military during peacetime.

Through the Korean War and the Vietnam War, PTs helped returning soldiers recover from injuries. But, since the military had discontinued their PT training program, the APTA began pushing universities to offer physical therapy education programs. Developments in other medical fields, such as open-heart surgery and joint replacement, also influenced the prevalence of physical therapy. There was now a need for preoperative and postoperative units.

The PT field has grown leaps and bounds over the years due to science, inventions, and a little trial and error. Today, the vast majority of PTs are Doctors of Physical Therapy. Now more than ever, we can effectively live out our mission: to bring hope, healing, confidence, and joy to others.

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