Why it's Important to be a Trauma-Informed Physical Therapist

It seems obvious that physical therapy is about physical healing. The problem is, when we’re laser focused on a patient’s physical health, we miss extremely important aspects of that person’s whole health and healing experience.

What if you could design treatment plans that took mental and emotional health into consideration, protected your patients from triggers or retraumatization, and improved their therapeutic outcomes?

That’s exactly what can happen when physical therapists become trauma-informed and incorporate training from licensed mental health professionals into their day-to-day practices.

What does it mean to be a trauma-informed physical therapist?

Patients are always complex. They come to their appointment with a lifetime of experiences that are invisible to you, but may drastically affect your ability to help them achieve their best outcomes.

For example, a patient recovering from a car accident might be dealing with extreme anxiety during their ride to and from their appointment. Or, a patient who has been sexually assaulted could be apprehensive to let you into their personal space.

Traumatic experiences and the tolls they take on your patient aren’t generally going to be obvious to you as their physical therapist. Even when you know a traumatic event has occurred, like a car accident, you still won’t have a clear picture of how that person thinks, feels, and behaves because of that event. And, you certainly won’t know when those feelings or behaviors might impact their physical therapy experience.

Since we’re not handed a detailed report of a patient’s past experiences, it’s important we’re equipped to default to trauma-informed therapy. To do that, we have to...

  1. Understand what trauma is and how it manifests in the body.
  2. Establish safety and build trust with every patient.
  3. Recognize common triggers and signs of existing trauma.
  4. Be prepared to customize treatment plans accordingly.

While these four things are incredibly important and invaluable to a patient’s experience, they’re not regularly taught through our education or professional training.

I wish I could cover these four topics in detail in a single blog post, but that’s impossible. So, let’s start with the basics.

What is trauma?

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), trauma is “the result of ‘an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.’”

To develop understanding and compassion for people who have experienced trauma, it’s important to look at the “Three E’s” of Trauma: event, experience, and effects.

  • Event: What actually happened to the patient? It could have been a natural disaster, an injury, an accident, abuse, or some other experience that caused harm.
  • Experience: What variables colored the patient’s experience of the traumatic event? What cultural or religious implications were involved? How old were they when the event happened? What was the person’s power or powerlessness in the situation? And how did their family or support system respond?
  • Effects: What are the lasting effects on a person’s life after the event has happened. These can show up immediately, weeks later, years later, or be chronic.

When we operate from the standpoint that any patient could have any number of events, experiences, and effects from traumatic situations, it can transform how we approach their treatment.

Why is any of this important?

Physical therapists are in a unique position to trigger patients who have experienced trauma.

When we work with patients, they’re often in vulnerable positions, feel out of control, and don’t always understand exactly what we’re doing. Additionally, our job requires us to be very hands on and in their personal space.

These considerations have not always been top-of-mind with physical therapists or many medical professionals, for that matter. But as we learn to become better caretakers and develop a deeper understanding of how mental and emotional health is tied to a person’s physical health, it becomes increasingly important to practice from a trauma-informed baseline.

How to become a trauma-informed physical therapist

The only way to operate from a trauma-informed perspective is to educate yourself. This is not about reading a couple of articles and understanding it. This is about digging into the training that mental health professionals go through and applying that knowledge to our physical therapy careers.

We need to be working WITH our colleagues in mental health to understand how we can better protect our patients while working on their physical health. Failing to do that is failing to properly care for our patients.

In January, PT Learning Lab is holding its first ever Elevated Care Conference. Trauma-Informed physical therapy is going to be the key takeaway of the entire event.

This topic is so important to me, that I got all of this information approved for Continuing Education Credits.

Join me in January at the Elevated Care Conference to educate yourself on becoming a trauma-informed physical therapist, and earn CEUs while you’re add it.


If you have any questions at all, send me an email at rachel@ptlearninglab.com.

See you in January!

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