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Our muscles, bones and the tissues that connect them are some of the most common sources of pain. If you have an aching back, sports injury, joint pain, arthritis or any number of other ailments, finding relief is probably a priority to you.
If that sounds familiar, knowing your options could help match you with the person whose skills and expertise can treat your pain. It’s likely that a physical therapist or an orthopedist — or both, working together — could help.
But just getting to see the right person is a hurdle for many people, says Doug Allen, a licensed physical therapist at AdventHealth Sports Med & Rehab. Often, someone with an aching knee will say they need a massage, he says, which may not be the right approach.
“I hear this story on a regular basis,” he says.
So who is the best person to treat your pain? Richard Konsens, MD, an AdventHealth orthopedic surgeon, says an orthopedic doctor, who specializes in disorders of bones or muscles, is probably your best bet for a first stop.
Where to Start When You’re in Pain
No matter where your pain is coming from, it’s usually not possible to tell precisely what’s wrong from the pain alone.
There are some exceptions to this — a sprained ankle after a fall is typically pretty obvious — but in general the first step to treating pain is diagnosing the problem.
Dr. Konsens said orthopedic doctors and surgeons are the best positioned to do that because they can investigate every part of a patient’s health. If a patient told him their knee is swollen, Dr. Konsens might suspect a joint issue, but he would also investigate other potential problems, like gout or thyroid disease.
Even if you’re pretty sure of the cause of your pain — say you fall and bruise your knee — an orthopedic surgeon can order an X-ray to see if it’s broken.
Seeing an orthopedic surgeon does not mean you’re going to need surgery.
Though surgery is a virtual requirement for some injuries, as when a broken bone breaks through the skin, most pain is first treated with other methods.
Physical therapy, which focuses on correcting our patterns of movement to help the body heal itself, is often part of the treatment plan.
What a Physical Therapist Can Do for You
Allen agrees that physical therapy is not right for people who think they may have fractured a bone or otherwise seriously hurt themselves.
“But if a person says they twisted their ankle while walking in the yard or their back has been sore for several days, a physical therapist may be able to help,” he says. “We are the movement experts, so we are evaluating how a joint moves and whether it’s too much or not enough.”
Part of a physical therapist’s goal is to teach skills that help conquer the pain, but it’s not all about exercise. (To learn about some of the unique ways a physical therapist may be able to help you, check out our blog post.)
“One of my biggest tools is my hands,” Allen says, including moving a stiff joint to help it glide, roll or otherwise act as it should.
When Physical Therapy Is Part of the Treatment Plan
Dr. Konsens says he will refer patients to physical therapy to accomplish a specific goal, such as range of motion in the knee.
“Let’s say your knee injury heals but we notice your leg is stiff so we work on your range of motion,” he says.
When you see a physical therapist, you’re likely to be asked about your own goals. Allen often asks patients about their single greatest goal of treatment, which he calls their “most important thing.”
“We get out of bed because we want our patients to feel better and return to what’s important to them,” he says. “That gives us joy and a lot of job satisfaction.”
Even if you’re not sure exactly who you should see, our team approach means we do our best to get you in front of the person who can help.
Finding the Right Path to Pain Relief
Dr. Konsens says the biggest advantage of the AdventHealth Orthopedic Institute is a team that includes orthopedic surgeons like himself working alongside nurse practitioners, physician assistants, physiatrists, physical therapists and personal trainers. (To understand the difference between those last two professionals, read our post comparing personal training and physical therapy.)
“We try and keep everybody doing what they’re best at but with a team approach,” Dr. Konsens says.
We’re experienced at treating just about any musculoskeletal problem, from the common to the complex. But we realize that our patients are more than just bones and muscles, so we treat them as the whole people they are, delivering emotional and spiritual support, too.