Differences. A cause for celebration or tribulation?

People are different. People are unique. It’s what makes us interesting. It’s what makes us special. It’s what makes the world go round. Without differences in individuals, we wouldn’t have doctors and nurses and window cleaners and mechanics. It’s what gives us other cultures to learn from, different languages to speak. It gives us beautiful architecture to admire, climates to experience, landscapes to visit. Mountains and beaches and plains and deserts.

If there were no differences in the world, I’m not sure how nice a place it would be. If there weren’t differences in people, then who would be your best friend? Who would be your wife, husband, girlfriend, boyfriend?

If we monitor, adjust and regulate everything, so that each and every athlete is the same, are we not limiting the potential of millions of individuals across the world?

Why is it that, when it comes to physical differences, we don’t celebrate them? When it comes to genetic differences, we don’t celebrate them either? Why is it that Mokgadi Caster Semenya is being punished for a difference that sets her aside from the rest? Being made to medically treat something that could well be celebrated. If we monitor, adjust and regulate everything, so that each and every athlete is the same, are we not limiting the potential of millions of individuals across the world? If the Olympic Gold medallist’s and two-time world Champion had a testosterone level that was lower than the average female, would she be asked to medically treat that? Or is that difference acceptable?

Why aren’t all differences across individuals and even within individuals accepted? Break away from the norm and be the person you are. Do not succumb to conformity. Embrace your slight scoliosis of the spine, embrace the leg length discrepancy, embrace your lop-sided smile. In fact search for what, sets you apart. For what makes you different. For what makes you “You”.

Why can’t different be normal? Because that is what we all are. Different.

How many times do we have clients ask us “is it normal?”, “is my left side the same as my right”. How many times as physiotherapists, do we blame these small, potentially insignificant differences. How often do we find a difference from “normal” and try to correct it? What if that difference is normal? What if that difference is just the individual? What if the right shoulder blade winging is what makes them, well just that, them?

I went to see a physiotherapist myself last week. We can’t always treat ourselves. Sometimes you need a helping hand guiding you through the tunnel of pain or injury. Sometimes you need someone to open a window when your door is locked. A lot of physiotherapy is problem solving. What is stopping us from doing what we love? And how do we formulate a plan to get back to that? How do we navigate our way back to our maximal potential function? Sometimes that is difficult to see by yourself. Sometimes you need someone to guide the way.

Sometimes you need someone to open a window when your door is locked.

What did I notice in my physiotherapy session? I noticed differences. Differences between right and left. Differences that changed with different movements and positions. We often blame differences for pain but maybe that is just the way I am. I am right-handed. Do we blame that for pain and dysfunction? Do we need to aim for symmetry? Or do we need to aim for maximal movement potential for either side? Do we simply need to aim to get me back doing what I love, comfortably and confidently?

I say “we” because I don’t think I, as a physiotherapist, single handedly treat people. I join them on a journey. Just like my physiotherapist (thanks Jo) joined me on mine. We worked through solutions together. We problem solved together. She didn’t fix me. She facilitated and guided me to where I need to be. Acknowledging my differences and leaning on their fences.

She encouraged me to try new things, gave me ideas and an insight into the movement of my body. She supported me and listened to me. She listened to my fears and my goals. We formulated a plan. A plan for when things get better, a plan for when things stay the same and a plan for when things get worse.

I had a conversation with a friend recently about the value in physiotherapy. Why do I value a profession that may not have all the answers? Why do I value manual therapy if I am uncertain by which mechanism it helps? Or if it even helps at all. Why do I value something that may bend the rules slightly?

But the support we provide, the issues we help with. I think we often go above and beyond and that is where our value lies. Always striving to help the individual in front of us. And the 10 other individuals we have seen today as well. There are a range of different things that make physiotherapy valuable, and this will differ between individuals. Between clients. Between therapists. Between sessions.

A session could consist of a gym program, principles of weight training, education on running programs. It could include tips on lifestyle factors that could affect your progress, education on a specific condition. It could include hands-on manual work to a specific area.. 

“What do you hope to gain from today’s session?” One of the most valuable questions in a physiotherapist’s toolkit. One I have only recently learned to ask.

The value in physiotherapy doesn’t lie in how good our hands-on skills are, on how much weight we can squat, on how long we can hold a headstand. Because the value in physiotherapy does not lie in the physiotherapist. It lies in the outcome and the outcome will differ between everyone. As will the route to get there. Just as individuals have different goals, physiotherapists have different ways of working. And these differences should be celebrated.  

I value Physiotherapy as a profession because we support, we guide, and we facilitate people to reach their maximum movement potential and to reach their goals. I think these goals should be allowed to differ. I think that our bodies should be allowed to differ. I think differences are good. Because life would be very boring without them.

A favourite of mine from Antony Lo- do something different. How are you feeling? What have you done? Has it helped? Yes- then keep going. No- then do something different. Find the difference that makes a difference. We need differences. Maybe pain is the body asking you to change behaviour. How can we do that without being a little different.

What do you think? Should we celebrate differences within our bodies? Should we celebrate the winging scapula that might have previously been blamed? Or do we aim to correct, alter or fix such differences? Do we continue to unnecessarily medicate women to be allowed compete at the Olympics? Or do we commend her for her amazing achievements?#

Our greatest strength as a human race is our ability to acknowledge our differences. Our greatest weakness is our failure to embrace them.

Judith Henderson

Leave a reply