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Updated May 17, 2023
April 7, 2021

The Dangers of DIY Physical Therapy

by Veda Collmer, OTR/L

Man with injured neck sitting in car with neck brace on. Avoid injuries like this by avoiding DIY physical therapy.
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We live in the information age, where Do-It-Yourself (DIY) is easier than ever. Using social media and popular video platforms, one can DIY just about anything, from making a pour-over coffee to building a log cabin.

So, when faced with unexplained, unrelenting musculoskeletal (MSK) pain and a busy schedule, it is tempting to use the DIY approach for diagnosing and healing your own body.

Beware: DIY physical therapy may cause more harm than good for many reasons. In the following article, you'll learn about 7 reasons to be cautious when planning your next DIY PT project for your body.

Table of Contents

The DIY Physical Therapist is Not an Expert

Physical therapists become experts on body movement through:

  • Years of schooling covering all aspects of the human body (a minimum of 7!)
  • An extensive board exam that ensure they are knowledgeable in a variety of MSK topics
  • Continuing education after graduation to learn cutting-edge treatment approaches
  • Years of experience healing patients with MSK injuries

For these reasons, physical therapists are equipped with the ability to observe a patient's movement and identify the root cause of the problem.

Back pain — A common example:

Imagine you have back pain that you are treating DIY with a generic physical therapy app. You are not experiencing progress with your self-administered program, so you decide to seek expert help.

The licensed physical therapist observes your walking pattern and recognizes your low back pain is the result of weak leg muscles and a shuffling gait. The physical therapist prescribes leg strengthening exercises and education on the proper way to move, resulting in immediate pain reduction.

Personalization matters when it comes to recovery

The musculoskeletal system (MSK) is a complicated network of bones, muscles, tendons, and ligaments. The MSK system is designed to work together in a coordinated way to help you move. If a body part is injured or weak, you will likely adapt your movements to accommodate the injury and avoid pain.

Your adaptations will eventually cause pain to show up in another part of the body.

Video exercises on the internet are static, generalized information. They cannot replace a dynamic, personalized rehabilitation program designed by an expert.

What you can expect from a PT

During your first visit with CityPT, your physical therapist will:

  • Carefully listen to your story
  • Ask targeted questions
  • Perform a series of tests to assess your muscle strength, rate your pain, and observe your movement patterns
  • Educate you about the root cause of your pain and lifestyle adaptations for immediate pain relief (e.g. changing your sleep position)
  • Prescribe exercises for strengthening
  • Collaborate with you to establish realistic goals

Your PT will assess progress you make during each session. Furthermore, they will educate you and modify your exercise prescription to keep you on a path of improvement towards your goals.

The DIYer Will Incorrectly Diagnose Themselves

Diagnosing yourself with internet blogs and videos exposes you to the risk of an incorrect diagnosis. Here are some examples:

  • Pain can signal different root causes: Nagging, throbbing pain can mean an injured muscle, whereas sharp shooting pain may mean a serious injury requiring immediate medical attention.
  • Inflammation after an injury is usually a healthy sign of the healing process: Alternatively, lingering inflammation for weeks indicates a more serious injury like a hairline fracture.

The internet cannot assess your specific condition and educate you properly. As a DIY PT, you run the risk of continuing with the wrong exercises or other versions of self-treatment, which could result in additional injury.

In contrast, licensed physical therapists are experts1 on every aspect of the musculoskeletal system. Their doctoral education includes gross anatomy, chemistry, and physics with years spent studying how the body systems work together. Additionally, a physical therapist completes continuing education courses to maintain their license, so they are always learning new techniques supported by scientific evidence.

A licensed physical therapist provides multidimensional treatments

This includes:

  • Constantly assessing you for signs the intervention is helping or hindering progress. The physical therapist looks at you through a clinical lens and asks targeted questions to assess your response to the therapy.
  • Educating you about your musculoskeletal system and how to recognize signals that an exercise is causing more harm. Each intervention is always changing based on your response.
  • Identifying when a more serious medical condition underlies your injury, such as a possible broken bone, so you can get to the appropriate clinical provider.

The DIYer Uses the Right Exercises With the Wrong Form

Since you are probably not an expert on the musculoskeletal system, you may not understand how performing one movement affects other muscles and body systems. Acting as your own DIY physical therapist increases the likelihood you will perform the right exercise in the wrong way and injure yourself. A video cannot provide feedback if you are performing the exercise incorrectly.

Licensed physical therapists are deeply knowledgeable about how the body works. Physical therapists recognize that performing effective exercises with the wrong technique can mean another serious injury.

Some body parts are more complicated than others

And some body parts are more complicated than others. It takes a trained physical therapist to direct the correct treatment program for complicated joints like the shoulder which are jammed packed with nerves, tendons, and ligaments. You don't want to complete exercises in the wrong order or technique and risk a torn muscle or ligament.

A PT will give you the right feedback

In fact, they will:

  • Provide you with exercises to help you achieve your goals
  • Educate you on the correct form for each exercise
  • Coach you on how maximize exercise impact
  • Help you monitor warning signs such as pain so you're safe to complete exercises outside of your session

Plus, if you are using opioids to control pain, physical therapy is uniquely suited to help you reduce pain and exercise in a safer way.2

The DIYer Doesn't Know When To Push And When To Stop

As a DIY physical therapist, you are not benefitting from the coaching, education, and personalized rehabilitation program of an expert.

Instead, you are relying on a generalized exercise program on the open internet. And even if you understand the medical terms included, the internet exercise video cannot tweak your program to maximize your benefits as you progress.

Even more of a problem, if you experience pain after your exercises, you lack guidance as to whether your pain is normal or if you should discontinue the program.

Unfortunately, your DIY program is generalized, static, and ineffective.

Treatment should be customized and dynamic

In contrast, CityPT physical therapy will offer the following:

  • Our physical therapists are experts on the way the human body moves.
  • Our physical therapists will know you and your specific program.
  • He or she will assess your function, develop personalized goals, and adjust your plan during each visit.
  • Your PT will change your exercise program to challenge you and advance your progress.
  • He or she will quickly recognize when an exercise is causing harm and you need to stop.
Here is an example of the difference between DIY PT and the expert care of CityPT:
DIY PT
  1. You find an internet video to reduce knee pain and strengthen your quadricep muscles.
  2. You try to duplicate the movement, but you're not really sure if you're doing it right.
  3. You get some progress, but now your knee is hurting, and you are not sure what to do next.
  4. You're not sure if you should modify the exercises or just stop altogether.
CityPT
  1. Your physical therapist carefully examines you moving your leg from multiple angles, and performs a battery of other functional tests.
  2. Your physical therapist educates you on proper form and the muscle you should feel contracting during the exercise.
  3. You tell her the exercises cause some pain behind your knee and she recommends placing a towel as support for the knee.
  4. Once your quadriceps get stronger, she adds a resistive band to the exercise to advance your progress.

The movie Restless Creatures3 captures the process of evaluation and adjustment that physical therapy provides. This movie follows Wendy Whelan, a talented prima ballerina as she recovers from hip surgery. It shows how the expertise of two talented physical therapists helped Whelen through various stages of recovery to return to her much-loved career.

The DIYer Won't Select the Right Exercises, Prolonging Injury And Pain

Since you are not an expert, reading blogs and watching videos on the internet will lead you down a rabbit hole. You may even end up purchasing expensive equipment or sifting through countless videos in a frantic effort to heal your pain. You could waste weeks or months trying to find a solution for your recovery.

Licensed PTs have years of training in healing MSK injuries

The physical therapist will:

  • Assess your body movement and ask the right questions to identify the problem
  • Create a customized treatment plan using a combination of treatment methods
  • Invite your questions and feedback on the prescribed intervention
  • Educate you about your body, your injury, and techniques for reducing your pain

Get relief as soon as possible

The combination of physical therapist expertise and a customized treatment plan designed for optimal recovery helps produce faster results. Rather than suffering alone, you can benefit from the vast knowledge, guidance, and coaching of your physical therapist.

For one teenager at the Mayo Clinic4, getting back to daily life after illness required expertise and a dedicated team to build the right program of recovery. She regained her life through a custom program to strengthen her muscles. No yoga video or app could replace the expertise or personal touch to develop a complete program of recovery.

The DIYer May Rely on Incorrect or Outdated Information

Blogs and videos on the internet may be outdated or completely incorrect. Relying on the wrong information for your DIY physical therapy program will delay your recovery and may cause additional injury.

  • Physical therapy is a scientific study of the human body and movement. It is guided by scientific research and is constantly evolving.
  • Physical therapists have completed years of college and post-doctoral education to stay abreast of best practices in treatment.
  • Physical therapists are equipped to read scientific studies and assess the quality of the research.
  • Physical therapists are able to pick treatments backed by the strongest research data.

Rather than searching the internet for information, you should seek the expertise of a physical therapist for a personalized, effective intervention plan.

The DIYer Believes They Avoid the Scheduling Hassle

You are probably thinking, "I'm in pain right now. I don't have the energy to get a physical therapy prescription from my doctor, schedule a physical therapy appointment, and drive to a clinic for my session."

Perhaps you're worried the whole process will take weeks before you even see a physical therapist. So rather than waiting for an appointment, you think you are better off treating yourself.

Get access to care almost instantly

With CityPT, scheduling an appointment with an expert is as easy as having groceries delivered to your home. How is this possible?

  • Most states allow direct access to physical therapy5, meaning you do not need a physician's prescription.
  • For many conditions, virtual physical therapy is effective, meaning you can attend the physical therapy session from the comfort of your home.
  • Booking an appointment with a CityPT expert physical therapist can be done in just a few minutes.

Skip the DIY, Get The Care You Need Now

CityPT is committed to providing immediate physical therapy services to help patients heal faster. We have many options from same day appointments to online booking with your favorite therapist within a few days.

Affordable rates, virtual appointments, and availability means you have fast access to an expert. Now there is no reason to risk DIY physical therapy.

Before you go, please read our disclaimer. This blog is intended for informational purposes only. We are not providing legal or medical advice and this blog does not create a provider-patient relationship. Do not rely on our blog (or any blog) for medical information. Always seek the help of a qualified medical professional who has assessed you and understands your condition.

References

Footnotes

  1. Rachel Tavel, P.T., D.P.T., C.S.C.S. How to know when you should see a physical therapist. SELF. Published June 1, 2019. Accessed February 26, 2021. https://www.self.com/story/how-to-know-when-you-should-see-a-physical-therapist

  2. Choose a safer way to manage pain. Choose physical therapy. #ChoosePT. Choosept.com. Published May 6, 2016. Accessed February 26, 2021. https://www.choosept.com/choose-physical-therapy-over-opioids-for-pain-management-choosept

  3. Wilkinson M. Restless Creatures: The Story of Life in Ten Movements. Icon Books; 2016.https://www.restlesscreaturefilm.com/

  4. Physical therapy helps teenager return to school and life. Choosept.com. Published January 25, 2017. Accessed February 26, 2021. https://www.choosept.com/whytherapy/detail/physical-therapy-helps-bedridden-teenager-return-t

  5. Direct access by state. Apta.org. Published October 24, 2019. Accessed February 26, 2021. https://www.apta.org/advocacy/issues/direct-access-advocacy/direct-access-by-state