The newer patients in our Austin-area physical therapy clinic often tell us the term Manual Therapy is somewhat confusing. For that reason, we wanted to explain what the term means and how it’s being used in various professions.

The official definition of Manual Therapy

The popularity of Manual Therapy has skyrocketed over the last decade, both among consumers and health care practitioners. So what is Manual Therapy? The American Physical Therapy Association defines it as:

A clinical approach utilizing skilled, specific hands-on techniques, including but not limited to manipulation/mobilization, used by the physical therapist to diagnose and treat soft tissues and joint structures for the purpose of modulating pain; increasing range of motion (ROM); reducing or eliminating soft tissue inflammation; inducing relaxation; improving contractile and non-contractile tissue repair, extensibility, and/or stability; facilitating movement; and improving function.

Other uses of the term

Looking at the words “Manual Therapy,” I can see why many are defining it simply as “hands-on therapeutic techniques.” In no way do I want to dumb down the term or its definition. I do want to convey that it is being defined in a very broad sense by a growing number of practitioners. And there are important consequences to this trend.

When I search the internet for information about “Manual Therapy,” I am often amazed at the wide variety of practitioners who identify themselves as “Manual Therapists.” Since this obviously will not change, it is important to know that the people using the term come from an incredible range of educational and clinical training backgrounds.

When I personally use the term “Manual Therapist,” I mean a licensed Physical Therapist with advanced training (and preferably certification) in Manual Therapy. Manual Physical Therapists have two specific qualifications. First, they have the training and skills to deliver highly effective techniques with their hands. In addition, they have the education and training to evaluate and determine/diagnose the true cause of a person’s pain.

This is not the case if you are visiting a licensed Massage Therapist. It doesn’t matter whether they use the term “Manual Therapy.” I have seen and even personally received hands-on therapeutic techniques from a variety of different professionals. This can include Massage Therapists, Chiropractors, and even Personal Trainers. But I would not define any of them purely as a Manual Therapist. Nor does it mean that I am discounting the effectiveness and need for these professionals. I use them myself regularly and refer my own patients to them quite often.

I’m simply posting this information to help clarify how the term is being used in a wide variety of ways by a number of different professionals.

What’s this mean for me?

If you are specifically looking for Manual Therapy, my suggestion would be to search for a licensed Physical Therapist. They should have a certification and/or residency in Manual Therapy. These credentials can only be given by educational institutions that have strict oversight from proper credentialing organizations.

You can also be sure these practitioners have undergone rigorous training in the diagnosis and treatment of issues from head to toe. They will have spent years in both the classroom and clinic to obtain their license and credentials.

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