5 Signs of a Bad Physical Therapist

Over many years, we’ve worked with many physical therapists and heard from thousands of patients regarding their experiences with physical therapists, bad and good. Though we hesitate to label a particular physical therapist as “bad,” there are some red flags we’ve learned to watch for on the journey to physical recovery.

Signs of a bad physical therapist include poor communication, not explaining treatment plans or exercises clearly, lack of individualized care, using a generic approach, or neglecting to track progress and incorporate patient feedback.

In this article, we’ll discuss what we mean by each of these factors, and provide some feedback on what to do if you think the relationship between you and your therapist just isn’t working out.

First, a caveat

Before we proceed, we’d like to say that we really don’t like labeling professionals in our industry as “good” or “bad.”

Though it’s certainly true in every line of work that some folks are more suited to the tasks than others, we think that many times the more important question to ask yourself is whether this particular physical therapist is a good fit for your communication style, needs, and preferences.

Additionally, if you feel that you’re not making progress, take a quick read through our article on what to do if physical therapy isn’t working for you. Many times, simple adjustments and a conversation or two with your current physical therapist will be all you need to get back on track.

A man grasping his shoulder because physical therapy didn't work.

Signs you have a bad physical therapist

1. Issues with patient communication

As we discussed in our article on what makes a good physical therapist, the ability to effectively help patients understand the purpose of their exercises, how to perform the various movements, and the trajectory of their progress is an essential element of working in physical therapy.

If you feel that you’ve been left in the dark regarding your treatment plans, exercises, or progress, it’s a good time to evaluate.

One note: we do believe that simply asking the question to your physical therapist is often the solution. There are many potential reasons why the therapist may not have explained something to you. However, if you ask, and don’t receive what you consider to be a satisfactory answer, it may be time to reevaluate the relationship.

2. Lack of communication with primary care providers or specialists

Though this could fall under the general heading of “communication,” we feel it warrants its own discussion.

As physical therapists, we pride ourselves on providing affordable, sustainable, holistic solutions to musculoskeletal issues. This means we must be able to work in tandem with your primary healthcare providers and any other specialists you’re working with.

If other medical professionals feel as though they’ve been left in the dark, that’s not a good sign.

3. Lack of individualized care

If a physical therapist uses a cookie-cutter plan for each patient, we consider that to be a red flag. As the old cliché goes, every patient is different. In our practice, we’ve found this to be true.

Factors such as injury history, personal experience, age, gender, and even patient preferences should play a role in all of the treatment plans we design. This means that the process of developing the treatment plan should be done in tandem with the patient’s preferences during the initial evaluation and it should be adjusted during subsequent appointments.

4. Neglecting to track progress

If the physical therapist’s efforts and in-clinic processes don’t facilitate tracking and progressing your exercises over time, that should be a red flag.

One thing we hope all of our readers intuitively understand is that a physical therapy treatment plan, at its core, is a highly specialized exercise program. In that light, wouldn’t we view it as a problem if we were going to a traditional gym, month after month, and not progressing our exercises?

A physical therapy program should be no different. Week after week, we should be progressing the intensity and volume of our exercises such that we can see measurable improvement. This progress will be the cornerstone of recovery from your injury, until you’re cleared to exercise on your own once again.

5. Not incorporating patient feedback into the exercise program

Your feedback is invaluable in the therapeutic process. A good physical therapist will listen to your concerns and adjust treatments based on your experiences and comfort levels.

This means that when you raise concerns, your physical therapist should do one of two things. They should either:

  1. Adjust the treatment plan accordingly, or
  2. Spend some time effectively explaining why continuing is the best course of action.

Neglecting patient feedback can lead to prolonged pain or (in extreme cases) further injury. Therefore, the inability to respond accordingly to patient feedback should be viewed as a red flag.

A physical therapist working on a patient's shoulder.

What to do if you think you’ve chosen a bad physical therapist

As stated earlier, the first thing we think you should do if you think you’ve chosen a bad physical therapist is to take a look at the factors that are within your control:

  • Do you have realistic expectations of what physical therapy can do for you?
  • Have you been consistent in keeping your appointments?
  • Are you completing your home exercise plans?
  • Have you communicated your concerns to your therapist?

If you can answer all of the above questions in the affirmative, then it may be time to take a look at the relationship and reevaluate.

Consider a physical therapist with a different specialty

Say, for example, your therapist’s focus is in working with seniors, but you’ve got a very specific athletic injury and really need to be seeing a therapist with a sport-specific focus.

In such a case, it could be true that your therapist is actually very good, but they just aren’t a good fit for your particular context. Choosing a physical therapist should be an individualized process based on your needs matched with a provider’s specialty.

Talk with your primary care provider or take a look around your community and see if there is another practice with a therapist known for making good progress in patients with your particular situation.

Consider working with another therapist in the same practice

We totally understand that not all personalities get along great with one another. Is there another therapist within the clinic you’re visiting that could, perhaps, fit your communication style and preferences a little better?

Many times, all we need to do is voice these concerns and make the switch.

Next steps

Recognizing these signs early can help you make informed decisions about your healthcare. Your recovery journey should be supported by a physical therapist who communicates effectively, provides individualized care, tracks your progress diligently, and values your feedback.

Don’t hesitate to seek a second opinion or switch therapists if you feel your current provider is not meeting these standards. Remember, your health and recovery are paramount, and you deserve a therapist who is fully committed to helping you achieve your goals.

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