It’s hard to say when the videos started showing up on my Instagram Explore page, but I’d guess it was somewhere in between searching for at-home ab workouts that didn’t feature literal models and desperately Googling “back and neck pain all the time???”—which is to say, late March 2020. Soon, diagrams of the skeletomuscular system that would feel more at home in a textbook than sandwiched between Bella Hadid’s latest vacation and a meme about Virgos began to populate my feed, attached to bold but tempered promises and accompanying instructional videos: “Unlock Your Glute Mobility,” or “Sprained Ankle Rehab,” or “Open Your Tight Hips.” It turns out this kind of content is standard fare from social media’s physical therapists, who want us all to know that it’s their job to help us work through pain, no matter what the source is.
Thanks to social media platforms like Instagram and YouTube, PTs say the idea of what physical therapy is has slowly expanded, meaning more people are able to seek out social media solutions for pain that plagues them—and follower counts for people providing that kind of content climb up to influencer heights. “In general, social media profiles and personalities do well when you provide value to people,” Kip Thorstenson, who runs a 372,000-follower physical therapy Instagram account @teachbyexample, told VICE. “So, for these different [physical therapy] accounts, whether they can give you a stretch, a workout, or a simple exercise, that can make people feel better and that's pretty powerful. People gravitate towards that.”
The traditional conception of physical therapy goes something like: Get in an accident, get seriously messed up, work with a physical therapist to heal as much as possible. Think Hank in Breaking Bad or Tony Soprano in The Sopranos, hospital-bound and grouchy, relearning how to walk.
Of course, some physical therapists do address dramatic, life-altering injuries, but according to the professionals, the field has much more variety than that. “You may have PTs that work in outpatient orthopedics, the sports training and rehab side of things, but you have a whole ‘nother side of rehab, where it's stroke and traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, and then you have PTs that work in nursing homes,” Thorstenson said. “It’s super, super expansive.”
Bob Schrupp, part of YouTube PT duo Brad and Bob, said the videos he and co-star Brad Heineck produce are geared to an older audience—but that followers of all ages flooded to their content during the pandemic.
“At first, there was like, a brief period of maybe a week or two or three weeks where our numbers went down, because I think everybody was watching everything on COVID and nothing else,” Schrupp told VICE. “Then all of a sudden, our numbers went up. Before, we were gaining maybe 2000 followers a day. Now, it’s three or four thousand, and I attribute a big part of that to the day stay at home crew. Plus, once people know it's there, they rely on you for any additional problems that come up.”
Schrupp and Heineck joined YouTube in 2011 and now boast a whopping 3.18 million followers on the video platform, plus 85,000 on Instagram and another 57,300 on their budding TikTok account. The duo’s videos meander, mixing product recommendations with exercise demonstrations and a little bit of banter—it’s shockingly unpolished, totally scriptless, more like hanging out with your favorite high school science teachers during lunch than listening to a medical professional. “It’s mind-boggling,” Schrupp said of the channel’s popularity. “What is wrong with people? But really, I hope it’s because we make it easy to understand, I hope because it’s relaxed that it’s not so clinical.”
The PTs most active on social media tend to cater to a real-world active crowd. “Most of the people I work with, if you saw them out on the street, you wouldn't say, Hey, that person is probably going to physical therapy,” Adam McCluskey, a physical therapist who runs @theptinitiative, an Instagram account with more than 443,000 followers, told VICE. “But maybe they're a CrossFit athlete and when they overhead press 135 pounds they have pain in the shoulder, or they're a triathlete and in mile eight they get knee pain.”
McCluskey sees his work (and, to an extent, his content) as an alternative to quitting something you love just because it hurts to do it. “For a lot of those people that are very active, that's how they just stay balanced and happy, mentally and physically. When pain is pulling them back from that, it's a very real injury and it’s very frustrating,” he said.
Still, you don’t need to be a triathlete or a Crossfitter to benefit from mobility work or some deep, focused stretching—especially if you’re a worker caught in the throes of a makeshift home office with no return in sight. “People who were cooped up and not having the usual avenues of physical exercise started looking for solutions,” Clinton Lee, who runs @physiostrengthnyc, a 12,100-follower Instagram account for his PT clinic, told VICE.
“They were asking, What can I do for this one spot on my back? I sit in the same place all day and normally I'm good because I walk three miles a day on my commute. As physical therapists, we’re trying to figure out versatile solutions for people to address their pain, whether it's in their home or whether it’s in a gym, so we’ve been trying to be creative when doing that—and it makes for attractive content.” (Lee mentioned one video, where he and his wife perform inverted rows on their dining room table, as a favorite of VICE Life editor Casey Johnston.)
Of course, the PTs VICE spoke to said there are distinct limits as to what anyone can get from looking at their content. “When someone's working with me personally,” McCluskey said, “I have their injury history, what they do, what they haven't been doing, how they're sleeping, how they're moving. All those things matter” when it comes to working through an injury, chronic or acute. Schrupp, who transitioned from running a physical therapy clinic to creating educational physical therapy content, said that one of the biggest risks of subbing in free online resources for personalized care is misdiagnosis—because pain in one area doesn’t necessarily equate to a problem in that area.
“If you've been diagnosed by a doctor or therapist, then it's almost always right, and then the treatment helps,” he said. “But if you just go online and say ‘I have shoulder pain,’ it might be from your shoulder, but it might be from your neck… it could be from your elbow! It’s a lot harder to get the right treatment.”
Still, for people with newer, milder complaints, educational physical therapy content can suffice. “Years ago, I would have said, ’See a physical therapist in person no matter what,’” Lee said. “I’ve recently changed my mind on that a little bit, because I think there are a lot of pains that are over-pathologized." Lee cited lower back pain, which statistics show 25 percent of U.S. adults have experienced in the past three months. "I think if we told everybody that experienced some sort of discomfort in their back to see a healthcare practitioner every time they felt that... I don’t know if that’s something that necessarily needs to be done.”
Ultimately, physical therapy might not be for literally everyone—but as long as physical therapists are sharing their knowledge for free, anyone who spends time moving around in a body might want to take advantage.
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Correction: A previous version of this article quoted Clinton Lee as saying "60% of people under the age of 25 will experience at least one episode of acute back pain." After publication, Lee provided VICE with corrected stats: 25 percent of people have experienced lower back pain in the last three months; 60 percent of people under the age of 25 do not experience lower back pain.