A Brief History Of Physiotherapy

Time to go to the physio! While some people detest going there, others seem to really like it. Since injuries are an everyday part of exercise, the topic of physiotherapy is just as relevant. As such, we have found an article that describes its history – both for your benefit and our entertainment. Have a read of it. Hopefully you enjoy this slightly edited article that has an American focus.

At least as early as the days of Hippocrates, massage was used to ease muscle tension. Therefore, in a way, the history of physiotherapy begun around then.  The practice of physiotherapy has evolved through the centuries from the earliest forms to the complex system of treatment it is now.

In 460 B.C. Hector was using a type of physiotherapy called hydrotherapy, or water therapy.  Professionals still use this type of therapy today, although it is more specialized for each type of condition that the patients have.


1894 was when the first evidence of a physiotherapy-related society commenced, with a group of nurses forming a Chartered Society.  Within twenty years, physiotherapy programs were set up in other countries.  New Zealand’s started in 1913 and America’s in 1914.

The first American professionals in the history of physiotherapy were from the Walter Reed College and Hospital in Portland Oregon.  Rather than being called physiotherapists, they were called reconstruction aides.  These aides were nurses and they had a physical education background.  They were important in the recovery of many World War I veterans.

Research has been done throughout the modern history of physiotherapy.  In fact, right near the very beginning, a research study was done in the US.  It was published in 1921.  Physiotherapy research continues today in a myriad of specialties. Also in 1921, the Physical Therapy Association was formed by Mary McMillan.  This group later became the APTA, arguably the most influential organization in the American history of physiotherapy.

The Georgia Warm Springs Foundation was started in 1924 to deal with the ever-growing epidemic of polio.  The foundation offered physiotherapy for these patients.  Sister Kinney was known nationally for her work with polio victims.  She practiced at the Mayo Clinic.  The polio epidemic was a turning point in the history of physiotherapy.  After the polio epidemic had waned, the treatments of choice were massage, exercise, and traction.  In about 1950, chiropractic manipulations came on the scene in the history of physiotherapy.  This was most common in Great Britain.


After that time, the history of physiotherapy moved from hospitals into other arenas of service.  There were, and are, physiotherapists working in clinics, private practices, nursing homes, and schools.  The Orthopaedics specialty of physiotherapy was born about this time also.

The International Federation of Orthopaedic Manipulative Therapy came onto the scene and began making changes and has influenced the profession ever since.  Mariano Rocabado was a physiotherapist who had a profound impact.  Freddy Kaltenborn, from Norway, influenced physiotherapy on the east coast of the US.  At the same time, Geoffrey Maitland of Australia changed the way training was done in the history of physiotherapy.

The focus during the 1980s history of physiotherapy was on technology.  New procedures came about that used computers, ultrasound, electrical stimulation, and other devices.  By the 1990s, interest had shifted to manual therapy, with Freddy Kaltenborn again leading the way. During the history of physiotherapy, training and practice have changed and improved.  Many brilliant pioneers have left their marks in the literature and organizations of the field.  Physiotherapy is a well-respected profession as a result.

There we go – a little dry history lesson for you. Now perhaps you’ll have a greater appreciation of the physio when you go for your next visit. Or perhaps not. Either way, here’s to hoping for the best outcome if you have to go to the physio!

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