Why Is Communication Vital In Physical Therapy?

By Ben Loomis – DSC_9441.jpg, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=73875056

Communication and the Patient-Therapist Relationship

The outcome of physical therapy care depends on the interplay between the therapist’s technological skill, communication abilities, and reflective ability to respond to the needs of the patient. In previous posts, we explored how increased satisfaction and care results are correlated with a supportive patient-therapist relationship. In an outpatient physical therapy setting, we now turn to which particular variables affect this relationship.

A recent research by O’Keefe & colleagues explored which factors in outpatient physical therapy affect patient-therapist interactions. Four main themes emerged from the study:

  1. The interpersonal and communication skills of the physical therapist
  2. The practical skills of the physical therapist
  3. Providing individualized patient-centered treatment (individualization of counseling and consideration in the care plan of patient opinions)
  4. Factors in the company or setting (time with the therapist and appointment flexibility)

The remainder of this paper goes into more detail regarding the value of the physical therapist’s communication and realistic abilities.

Interpersonal & Communication Skills of the Physical Therapist

Communication-related factors associated with favorable patient-therapist experiences include active listening, empathy, friendliness, trust, and motivation. Without being disturbed or rushed, patients want to share their story. They feel heard and respected when physical therapists listen to their patients, which improves the relationship. Patients tend to empathize with what they are facing with their physical therapist to understand how this affects their lives.

A stronger relationship with their patients is formed by physical therapists who communicate in a relaxed manner and incorporate humor. Therapists providing personal support and motivation are more likely to encourage their patients to comply with guidelines for treatment. Finally, patients who feel secure in their therapist are more likely to trust their views and advice and respect them. Physical therapists that possess and have developed these interpersonal abilities cultivate a supportive partnership between patient and therapist that leads to improved treatment outcomes.

Practical Skills of the Physical Therapist

The two most important practical skills which lead to improved patient-therapist relationships have been shown to be patient education and physical therapist expertise. Interestingly, patient education is only viewed by patients, not most physical therapists, as essential. This may be due to the concept that many physical therapists see themselves as “healers” passively delivering a procedure vs. a “teacher” who teaches the patient how to solve their own problem actively. Patients choose the latter when a sense of control over their pain or concern is offered to them.

Patients also want straightforward descriptions of their condition or problem. They want to know if it will help with physical therapy. Patients want to know the reason behind particular exercises being used. It is necessary to avoid medical technical terminology. By using analogies and metaphors, patients also believe like they understand better. Patients often feel it is important that their physical therapist has exceptional professional abilities and expertise, which are also exemplified by advanced qualifications or degrees.


A mixture of interpersonal and functional skills are essential factors affecting their working relationship, both patients and physical therapists agree. The importance of this relationship affects treatment satisfaction and outcome has been shown by studies. Therefore, it is recommended for those considering outpatient physical therapy as a therapeutic choice to seek help from physical therapists who recognize and practice these abilities.

Are You Looking for Relief From Neck Pain? 

Pace Physical Therapy in San Jose, California specializes in non-surgical neck pain relief and recovery therapies.  We pride ourselves on offering the best possible physical therapy available and going above and beyond for our patients. Our highly experienced physical therapist will work with you to improve your function and relieve your pain. We start by assessing the body as a whole. Oftentimes the cause of pain or an injury extends far beyond just the body part or muscle hurting. Without taking a comprehensive look at your entire self, we would be doing you a disservice in fully helping you heal and preventing future limitations. We then move on to fixing your areas of limitation.  Not all diagnoses are created equal. One person with neck pain may have completely different limitations than the next person. Your recovery program needs to be specific to what YOUR body needs and not just the typical exercise program that you can find online. Just because your pain decreases or you can walk longer doesn’t mean that it is enough to get you functioning at the level you want to be. While this often signifies the end of care at your typical PT clinic we don’t stop providing guidance until we help you successfully meet every goal you set for yourself with us on day one. Contact us today to schedule your appointment!