The Therapeutic Alliance

By: Dr. Laura Wenger, PT, OCS

Sometimes, life doesn’t go how you’ve planned. We get it. A pain in your knee limits your summer hiking plans. A torn rotator cuff leads to a surgery and time off you haven’t planned for. Sometimes your aches and pains don’t necessarily limit your participation in an activity, but they don’t allow you to do things the way you would like to do them. Pain and discomfort come in all shapes and sizes. And not only that, but it happens to the best of us!

Take my case, for example. I was clicking along, training for a trail-running half marathon that is happening this October- the Durango Double that begins and finishes right behind our clinic that we love to sponsor and volunteer for! But, there were a few bumps and snafus that happened with my busy life schedule that happened to derail my training, which led me down a bumpy road to injuring myself due to poor training habits coupled with a pre-existing condition that I was not addressing the way I should have been. You may think, “But, you’re a PT- you should know better!!!” So, in the end, I’m taking a time-out from running to focus on my body in the way it needs to be focused on. What better way to do that then by surrounding myself with smart, caring and trustworthy PTs (AKA my colleagues here at Tomsic PT!) that can help guide me along my path to rehabilitation so that I can keep up in participation of trail-running endeavors for many years to come!

Sneaking in some exercises between patients

The neat thing about that concept is that there is research that has shown the powerful effect on the relationship between patients and physical therapists on treatment outcome in patients with low back pain.1 Sure, a well-trained PT is worth their weight in gold when they can recognize what is happening in your body that is contributing to your pain and, even more importantly, what needs to be done to help reduce your pain and discomfort in order to meet your goals. But, beyond having the ability to identify and treat your problems appropriately, the relationship- or therapeutic alliance- that is built between you and your PT may predict how much better you will get.1 Specifically, the therapeutic alliance depends on three things: (1) the therapist-patient agreement on goals, (2) the therapist-patient agreement on interventions (AKA treatment choices), and (3) the affective bond between patient and therapist, which refers to the trust and confidence that the treatments will bring the patient closer to their goals.1

Research has demonstrated that higher levels of therapeutic alliance were associated with greater improvements in perceived effect of treatment, function, and reductions in pain and disability.1 I just find it fascinating that the relationship we love building with our patients is not only fun in our small community, but it actually helps our patients get even better than they would have if we didn’t have a strong alliance built during our time together! Getting on the same page with your goals, the treatments we are offering, and how confident we are in how those treatments can improve your conditions is integral to having a successful rehabilitation of your problem. Even though this research focused specifically on low back pain, my hunch is that we can extrapolate this information to other areas of pain and discomfort as well. I feel fortunate that I am surrounded by empathetic and knowledgeable PTs to help guide me through my own issues, and I hope that each and every one of our patients realizes the importance in creating these relationships with each other!

 

  1. Ferreira PH, Ferreira ML, et al. The Therapeutic Alliance Between Clinicians and Patients Predicts Outcome in Chronic Low Back Pain. Phys Ther. 2013; 93:470-478.