The Body and Physiotherapy


In recent years, physiotherapists have been increasingly interested in defining their professional identity. At the heart of this interest lies a fundamental question about the role that the body plays in defining physiotherapy practice. Given the importance of the body to physiotherapy, it is surprising how under-theorized the body is in existing physiotherapy literature. With a few notable exceptions, the body as a philosophical/theoretical construct has been almost entirely bypassed by the profession. In this paper the authors argue that a renewed interest in the meaning given to the body by physiotherapists is timely, and offer a socio-historical critique of the role the body has played in defining physiotherapy practice. We challenge physiotherapists’ longstanding affinity with a biomechanical view of the body, arguing that whilst this approach may have been critically important in the past, it is now increasingly clear that a more diverse and inclusive approach to the body will be needed in the future. The authors explore the notion of embodiment and suggest ways in which embodiment theory might be applied to physiotherapy practice. Physiotherapists first moved to adopt a biomechanical view of the body in response to what became known as the ‘Massage Scandals’ in late Victorian England. At the time, prostitutes masqueraded as masseuses in order to avoid prosecution, and threatened to derail the plans of nurses and midwives who were seeking to develop the therapeutic possibilities of massage. To prove to the public and the medical community that their actions were legitimate, the founders of the Society of Trained Masseuses (STM) (the forerunner of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy and many of the massage regulatory bodies that were subsequently developed within the Commonwealth) established a series of profoundly important strategies. These included forming close bonds with the medical community, advertising only in medical papers, establishing a code of conduct, establishing an examination system that governed the quality of practitioner, and operated as a vetting agency for prospective patients.


A biomechanical view of the body lie at the heart of physiotherapy practice and that if the profession is to adapt to the changes taking place within health care, it needs to first understand how the body has framed physiotherapy practice historically, philosophically, and socially. Some of this understanding can come through a greater awareness of the writings now emerging around health care and the body, and we have argued that work into the notion of embodiment may hold particular relevance to the profession. Certain aspects of embodiment offer physiotherapists enormous possibilities for growth.

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