The fact that Hoosiers can now be treated by a physical therapist without a doctor’s referral begs a new question for healthcare consumers: what conditions warrant a physical therapist’s care before seeing a doctor.
There’s an obvious fork in the road when choosing the right provider for neck pain. “If you have neck pain that’s been going on for a few weeks or months with no major trauma, seeing a physical therapist may be appropriate,” says Josh McCormack, PT, OCS, a physical therapist at Indiana University Health Ball Memorial Hospital in Muncie, Indiana. Although physical therapy may eventually be prescribed, physicians should usually be the first to evaluate neck pain after a fall or accident.
PTs are trained to notice signs of more serious problems or neurological conditions—numbness or weakness in the limbs, especially in both arms or in the arms and legs. If you suffer these symptoms and see a physical therapist first, you may be redirected to a physician for further evaluation and testing.
As primary care, McCormack says physical therapy is excellent for work-related neck pain linked to tightness or weaknesses in muscle groups that support the head and neck. “A big component of care for chronic neck pain is the postural help we can give patients who sit at a desk eight hours a day,” he says. “People have often been in those positions for such a lengthy period that it’s uncomfortable and difficult for them to achieve and maintain a correct posture for the spine. We can give them exercises to address strength and flexibility deficits, allowing them to maintain better posture and reduce the load on their spine.”