Are all physical therapists sadists?

By Mir
November 7, 2012

We’re three+ weeks out from the beginning of Zombiehandapalooza, and I can now definitively say that I am absolutely tired of this nonsense. Sure, sure, if it was a simple break, I’d still be a cast (probably poking pencils down in there to try to scratch it, because that’s the sort of difficult patient I tend to be), but my understanding of this whole bionic being-screwed-back-together thing was that I would be FINE in record time. And while it’s true that I can type again (hallelujah!), it’s also true that 1) my left hand still has a chronic case of The Stupid and 2) it huuuuuuuuurts.

That said, today I am prepared to add “and physical therapy will hasten your recovery” to the list of Dirty Lies Surgeons Tell You.

Listen, my physical therapist is a lovely woman. I’m sure she’s a good citizen and kind to kittens and all of that. But she’s trying to kill me and that just seems wrong, especially because it’s just my HAND, it’s not like I’m recovering from a spinal injury or anything. In fact, the entire ROOM I am now spending several hours in each week is the Hand And Arm Clinic, dedicated specifically to torturing those of us with compromised digits, probably because our hands are too weak to slap her.

The first couple of visits, she lulled me into a false sense of security. She handled me gingerly, repeatedly asking if she was hurting me, and giving me advice on wound care. I was sucked in, assuming she had my best interests at heart. Last week she gave me some simple stretching exercises and that was fine, too. “Don’t overdo it,” she said. “If it starts to hurt, stop.” What a nice lady, I thought.


Today I got there and one of the assistant torturers wrapped my hand up in a heating pad and set a timer for fifteen minutes. Ahhhhh. This was like being at a spa! How nice! After the timer dinged I was unwrapped and directed to spend some time crumpling up a scarf. Oooo… kay? My fingers happily cooperated, and I crumpled the HECK out of that scarf for the prescribed two minutes. Then I was brought over to the bin table.

The bin table is stocked with a bunch of colored bins of various substances, and for two minutes apiece I went through a sequence of different ones, dragging my hand through little plastic beads, then larger plastic beads, then beans, then macaroni, then shards of glass. (I don’t know. I stopped paying attention by the end. But something pointy, for sure.) This was supposed to “desensitize” my scar, or something. Because what’s awesome when your hand already hurts and your incision site isn’t even fully healed is dragging it through bins of sharp stuff a bunch of other people have touched with their sweaty gross hands. The good news is that it didn’t hurt my hand much. The bad news is that I’m pretty sure that by the time I was done I had developed OCD. (I washed my hands twice afterwards, just because… oh, shut it.)

So that was all fine, and then I was seated at yet a third table for the PT to check me out and “work” my hand. She opened up an industrial-sized container of shea butter and began massaging it into my incision site. Wasn’t that nice? She’s concerned about scarring! And the massage was kind of nice. She then progressed to moving my hand/fingers this way and that. She’s smooth—it was a slow progression, and at first it didn’t hurt at all. Then she started saying things like “little stretch, here” and “just breathe through it.”

[Sidebar: At one point, she asked me how things had been going and I said my mobility was pretty good, but I still can’t open jars with that hand. She looked at me like I’d just confessed to eating babies. “You can’t be OPENING JARS with that hand!” she scolded. “That’s TOO MUCH! Don’t DO that!” Oh, I see. You jabbing your pointy fingertips directly into my scar tissue is fine and dandy, but I’m not allowed to get into the gherkins? That doesn’t seem arbitrary AT ALL!]

I was just about to smack her with my good hand when she put my gimpy hand down and cheerfully announced, “Great! Good work today! I’ll have one of the girls ice you down and you’re good to go.” Hmmmm. Fifteen minutes of ice later and I walked out of there completely numb. (When I stopped at the checkout desk to give them my copay, I tried to accept the receipt with the afflicted hand and ended up dropping it because I couldn’t coordinate my fingers. Whoops.)

By the time I got home, a couple of hours had elapsed. Huh. This is kind of taking a lot of time, I remember thinking, as I sat down at my desk to get some work done and stuff some lunch in my mouth. Type type type, eat eat eat… everything was back to normal. For a few hours.

I don’t know if my morning dose of Tylenol wore off, or if the heated/cooled muscles just rebelled, or what. All I can tell you is that a few hours later I was contemplating chewing off my own hand AND telling off the physical therapist. EVERYTHING hurt—the incision site, my fingers, even my wrist. SHE BROKE ME. I took more Tylenol but it didn’t even touch it. I’m swollen and miserable and thinking VERY unkind thoughts about the physical therapist.

Do you think I could get out of next week’s appointment by telling her I have to stay home and wash my cat? Or something?


  1. Little Bird

    I recommend ice cream and red wine.

  2. ccr in MA

    I wouldn’t try to wash a cat until you have two fully functioning hands!

    Sorry. Couldn’t resist. Sorry about the pain, too. May you wake tomorrow pain-free (waves magic wand across many miles).

  3. Raquel

    Oh man, I am right there with you. PT started on my hip yesterday. Beginning of appointment.. “We will take it slow.”… “It will be gentle”….end of appointment “You might want to ice that”….two hours later, in bed, loaded on pain meds, whimpering like a baby. They aren’t physical THERAPISTS. They’re physical TERRORISTS.

  4. RuthWells

    Embrace the scar massage. If adhesions build up under the incision, it will be SO MUCH WORSE than physical therapy.

    Aren’t I helpful?!

  5. elz

    Sadly, they are all like that. Nice people, but sadists-all of ’em. Good luck, sweetie.

  6. Melanie

    Yes. I had 4 months of PT for a dislocated patella this year. It was the same thing. Nice and gentle at first… then the nice lady says “I’m going to work on you now.” It was hands-down the worst part of every session. Hang in there. I swear it is worth it. :)

  7. hollygee

    Have I mentioned (many times, probably) that I’ve broken each ankle (6 years apart); I didn’t have PT for the first break, did for the second [health insurance is a wonderful thing]. I know sadism when I experience it.

    She tells me to stand on my toes. Which I do. Except I didn’t do it right so I had to do it right muchonous times. It huuuuuuurts. And that time lag before the pain sets in? It ain’t fair.

    But. That ankle is much stronger than the one that healed without PT.

    Breathe through that torture.

  8. Nelson's Mama

    When I was doing rehab for my first shoulder surgery, I took narcotic pain meds BEFORE I walked in the door for PT.

    RUN for your life if they lead you toward ice water – just take my word for it…

    If it helps at all, I now count all (yes, I said all) of my therapists as some of my favorite people in the world :)

  9. Annette

    Did I ever tell you I am a PT? Let her know and she should lighten up on you next time.
    The scar massage and stretching are important but the strengthening can be slowed down:)

  10. Mara

    Physical therapy: it will suck awfully, then it will get better. My husband had 3 herniated discs in his neck and got physical therapy to help it. He came back from his second session claiming that they were literally trying to kill him– PT for this kind of injury involves putting the head in a vice sort of thing and *pulling* it away from the neck/ spine, to “create room” for the discs. He says it is very much like an old-fashioned rack-style torture device. But after a few more sessions he started looking forward to it. A bit after that, I found him looking around our apartment, wondering if we could somehow rig up our own torture rack for his neck-stretching pleasure.

    Hang in there, it WILL get better!

  11. Diane

    Had knee surgery at 16.
    That was when I coined the term “Physical Terrorist.”

  12. Debra

    OMG! This made me laugh because my PT was the same way after my shoulder surgery a few years ago. The best is… she’s a hand specialist. She’s also a belly dancer and we’ve always gotten along great. I remember thinking how great she was and easy this was gonna be until a couple hours after wards when I was in so much pain I was popping the big drugs and passing out on the couch with another ice pack on my shoulder.

    Ask her if it’s okay to ice it down 2-3 hours after you get done.

  13. miss blue

    The highest yield seems to come with the worst pain. Think of it as you have 10 packets of pain – if you get rid of 5 today you only have 5 to deal with tomorrow. If you only get rid of 1 today you have 9 to deal with tomorrow. This mind game helped my mind work through the pain when I had physical therapy. GOOD LUCK! It does end.

  14. Sherry

    When I first started PT for carpal tunnel, I was next to a guy who had his hand smashed in an accident. There he was, crying and red-faced while the therapist was trying to straighten his fingers (she asked if he wanted her to stop, he wouldn’t let her). There I was, waving an empty paper towel tube around in a circle feeling like a fool for my little owie.

  15. Sharon

    and you know…any surgery, treatment, whatever, the big scary dude who looks like an angry George Foreman is the sweetest, gentlest nurse who carefully helps you along and apologizes for any little bump of air on your booboo.
    the tiny, dainty, 89 pound adorable girl child is the physical terrorist who will cheerfully ask ‘can you bend it this way for me just a bit?’ and take her tiny little hands and create your ginormous world of pain.
    the movies always have “Brunhilde” characters, but it’s the teeny tiny PT who is the scariest.
    now, of course, once it’s all said and done, she will get you back to normal and years later you will be grateful and happy.
    you will run away from tiny nurses, but happily.

  16. RHCD

    Yeah after my calf lengthening surgery last year my PT who I’d gone back too from a different injury… Anyway she was awesome and bubbly but omg she was hell on wheels. I actually got bruises and we’d laugh as she massaged my claves; and by laugh i mean close the door and I yelped and almost weeped. The exercises were great compared to that. But it did work. And yeah ice and drugs…

  17. Korinthia Klein

    This just made me cringe the whole way through because I have nightmares about something happening to my hands. (As a musician and a violin maker I have no idea what I would do!)

    Good luck! Hope it gets easier.

  18. suburbancorrespondent

    If swelling is involved, ibuprofen might work better than acetaminophen. It sounds really painful!

    [Mir here: I agree, Tylenol is crap, but apparently NSAIDs can impede bone growth. This was news to me, but I’ve been forbidden Advil, Aleve, etc., until my cracked bone is done knitting itself together. Hmph.]

  19. Lynda M O

    PT is hard as hell at the time and you think you’re gonna die and someday you will, but most likely not from the PT, but yeah, like they all said up there: it helps a lot and you’ll be glad. That said take pain pills two hours before you go to PT and you will be a lot happier. Then stay AHEAD of the post PT pain with ice, meds and rest. I have many joint injuries (jock most of my life) and have been thru PT and not been thru and it’s almost always better with PT.

    [There was the shoulder separation where the therapist turned it the wrong way and set me back a couple months, but Hey, that’s just one of several experiences.]

    See if you can get a massage therapist who did a 650-hour course to help you out-they have studied deeply anatomy and physiology and can help with all kinds of stretching and manipulation.

  20. bkwyrm

    Take drugs before, take drugs after.
    I was in a car hit by a freight train when I was 15. The train won, I broke. 4 months of residential physical therapy to learn how to walk and use my left arm again.
    They are absolutely sadists, but if you suffer through it, you will be able to use the hand FAR better than if they babied you. Trust me on this. I had a physical therapist for a while who was very careful with me (I think she read my medical history and said OMGWHATARRGHLIABILITY or something) and it was totally useless. I formed adhesions that later had to be broken, muscles atrophied, it ended up being twice as much pain and work as it would have been if she’d have just manned up and hurt me (the right way) to begin with.

  21. mamaspeak

    My advice was to take the pain pills before you go as well. I know you think they make you stupid. I found that the pain makes me (more) stupid. I’m getting better at recognizing that; when I’m “stupid from pain,” & therefore function better in society “stupid from drugs.” Stupid is as stupid does, right?
    We’re going through the adhesion issue over my 9yo’s toe (cauterized to prevent from going ingrown anymore.) She’s battling an abscess & yesterday, the podiatrist removed more nail and “cleaned it out.” I’m not going to get into detail on what that entailed, (as it made me queasy & normally that stuff doesn’t bug me at all,) but let’s just say you don’t want to go down that road.
    Modern medicine is a good thing, take advantage where you can & hang in there.

  22. Lizneust

    Thirsting or whatever taking the pain meds before and after. Also the icing a couple hours later and then maybe just before bed. However, you should also tell her how much pain you were in later that day. She can step it back a bit until you are a bit more used to the stretching. PT people take the “no pain, no gain” thing very seriously, and it sucks – but they are right. Also, you will be surprised by how much better you will be able tondo the exercises in 2 weeks. Promise!

  23. Lizneust

    Argh – that was thirding, not thirsting. Stupid autocorrect.

  24. mamalang

    They are sadists, but what they are doing is for the greater good :) Good luck!

  25. shadymama

    bummer, mir!

  26. shadymama

    oh no! that comment went through alla sudden like before i was done! what it *should* say is – bummer, mir! as someone who suffered for two and half years of CHRONIC AND TERRIBLE hand and wrist pain, i have to say – acupuncture? effing magical stuff, that. maybe give it a try? way more relaxing than pt, and endlessly more effective (in my opinion). be well!

  27. Linda

    My niece is a physical therapist. Her dad was a Marine Corps Drill Instructor. She says she takes after him and makes people do their therapy. She says you just have to make them because it hurts too much for people to willing do it themselves. Her dad had his hip replaced and he wasn’t being good about his physical therapy. She just said if only I was back there, he’d do it.

  28. Beth R

    Yes, PT’s are torturers, but it’s worth it. The only reason I have full function in my dominant hand is because of my PT. That being said, take the pain meds before the session as well as afterwards, like everyone is saying.

    Oh, and ice cream is a great way to ice the inside while you ice the outside afterwards :)

    Hang in there and eventually you’ll be happy you did.

  29. karen

    Seems to me that was a little too intense of a session.. I don’t think you’re supposed to be that uncomfortable after… sheesh!!….

  30. Em

    Nothing good ever comes after the instruction “just breathe through it”

  31. Elizabeth

    I’ll take your pickle jar and raise you a plow… My grandpa had hip surgery and called to move his PT appointment so he could plow and plant before the rain came. They were NOT HAPPY about the plowing so soon after surgery…

  32. Mary K. in Rockport

    Yes, they are.

  33. Jim

    You should go back next week and open up a great big jar of woop ass on her !!!!!

  34. Tracy B

    No pain, no gain! Ok, I just slapped myself. :)

  35. Kemi

    Stop me if you’ve heard this one:

    What’s the difference between a therapist and a terrorist?

    You can negotiate with a terrorist!

    (ba dum-bum ching)

  36. Jeanie

    I’ve never heard a good story about a physical therapist. Makes you wonder, no?

  37. Anna

    I like the comment above about Brunhildas. One of my friends is a tiny thing with a tiny voice and works as an RN on the surgical floor. She’s the one who makes you get up and walk for the first time, when you’re all like “nooo… I think I will stay in bed for another week, thank you.”

  38. Jessica

    Yeah, that whole “let me know if it hurts too much, and we’ll stop”? That’s a lie. My PT said that to me as well, and then one time I was crying and trying not to yell…and she refused to stop.

    Sadly, I still have the same issue to this day (for almost seven years now), so PT didn’t work for me (although I can now walk down stairs, which wasn’t the case before I started back then). I’d love to try it again and see if I can get some flexion back, but I don’t know if it’s even worth it.

    PTs are dirty, dirty liars.

  39. Melissa

    Don’t you know PT stands for Pain & Torture??
    I have cried many a time in PT after three different surgeries.

  40. Amanda

    I sat here nodding my head at all of these comments. I’ve been in PT so much the last time, I asked, “Do you still have patients do this, this, and this?” “Are these exercises still recommended?” They finally asked me, “Why are you here?” I said, “Oh, because the neck part is new. I need exercises for that.”

    The thing about the tiny ones being sadists is also true of chiropractors. The practice I go to, the male doctor is so gentle that I don’t feel like anything was adjusted when I’m done. The female doctor of average height and build is just right for me, and the female doctor who is just a tiny thing makes you feel like you just played tackle football. Sort of like visiting the Three Bears.

  41. Irishgirl

    I read this article today and thought you might find it interesting to show your daughter, perhaps she might find it empowering in some way.
    Wishing her and you and all your family the very best of good things going forward.

  42. Susie

    I have two sisters-in-law who are PTs. And yes, we call them terrorists. It’s more fitting.

  43. Daisy

    I made the mistake of scheduling early morning PT so I wouldn’t miss school. All too many days I’d arrive at school stiff and sore and not exactly in the best condition to teach. I hope yours gets better each time!

  44. Amma Always

    That is why they are called physical terrorists. But really, no one in the medical field has your interests more at heart than the physical terrorist. God forbid I should ever have to see a PT again, and if I need one, thank God they are there. Wishing you healing and endurance.

  45. The Other Dawn

    Tell her you have to stay home and open pickle jars. That’ll learn her!

  46. The Other Dawn

    P.S. I am currently having physical terror for patello femoral pain syndrome, now complicated by a strained ligament in one knee. (what? 55-year olds shouldn’t hop off buses? Now you tell me!) my physical terrorist falls into the 95 lbs dripping wet category but I really like her anyway. TENS machine torture and all.

    Why are you mentioning Stockholm?

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