Many of us can experience pain and discomfort in our day-to-day lives, without knowing the cause. It’s not always easy to know what to do: should I put up with it? Should I see my GP? Should I see a physiotherapist or other health-care professional?
In the UK, our publicly-funded healthcare system offers us access to General Practitioners, who – under the traditional model of primary care – act as the first port-of-call for health-related concerns. They provide an essential service, often under difficult circumstances, and are an invaluable resource for those in need of pressing medical advice.
The capacity of GP surgeries has become strained in recent years – not least because of the recent pandemic. As GPs fight to continue offering necessary care, a patient may find themselves asking: How do I know when to seek help? Does my pain need to be seen to by a GP? Are there alternative routes I can take to help alleviate the pressure on my local GP?
The answers to these questions will vary from person to person depending on their needs.
Here’s a quick primer on how to assess your own health situation.
When is it right to see a GP?
The simple answer: Getting in touch with the GP surgery would be a sensible first option if you have persistent pain, or have concerns that your pain may be linked to an underlying condition. If you feel very unwell or you’ve been feeling unwell for an extended period without improvement, a GP is well-placed to help.
The honest answer: it isn’t always easy to know if the GP is the most appropriate person to see for your pain – but there are some general guidelines. Often, if you need simple advice or medication, your local pharmacist can offer the help you need. If you’ve had an injury that you think may have caused significant harm, then visiting a Minor Injuries Unit (MIU) may be a better choice – since they’re equipped with acute assessment options such as X-ray imaging. The same is true if, for example, you’re having difficulty weight-bearing following an injury. For those who are unsure about the cause or severity of their pain, the NHS 111 service (reached by dialling 111 or going to 111.nhs.uk) offers more advice. This can help patients find the most appropriate pathway.
This article by the NHS Oxfordshire CCG includes a helpful infographic presenting the use-cases of these options at-a-glance.
In the case of musculo-skeletal pain (pain relating to muscles, tendons, joints or bones), you should see a physiotherapist. In such cases physios are the first point-of-call to both diagnose and manage patients’ health complaints. In some locations, diagnostic physiotherapists (First Contact Physiotherapists) are stationed within GP surgeries. This model is being increasingly adopted in a bid to alleviate the pressure on GPs, and bring additional clinical skills to general practice.
When should I see a physiotherapist?
Physiotherapists are trained to diagnose and treat problems or pain related to the Musculo-Skeletal System (MSK) i.e. muscles, tendons, joints and bones. This kind of pain can arise as the result of an injury, or it can develop without any apparent trigger.
Common complaints treated by a physio:
- Neck pain,
- Back pain,
- Upper limb pain (eg. shoulder, elbow, wrist)
- Lower limb pain (eg. hip, knee, foot)
GPs often refer patients to a physio if they come presenting a health complaint regarding any of those areas indicated above. It’s also possible to self-refer directly to a physio if you have this type of physical complaint. We’ve explained more about this option in the section below.
Can I self-refer to a physiotherapist (or do I need a GP to refer me)?
If you see a GP and they determine that your pain is musculo-skeletal in nature, they will often refer you to a physio. Here you might be offered a choice as to whether you’d like an NHS-appointed physio or self-fund to go see a private clinician. It is possible to self-refer for physiotherapy under the NHS in certain locations. Private physiotherapy clinics typically accept self-referrals without the need to see a GP.
What are the key differences between NHS-appointed and private physiotherapy?
- NHS physiotherapists can be seen after a referral from your GP. In some locations it is possible to self-refer to an NHS physio. The vast majority of private physio practices accept self-referrals.
- Physiotherapy under the NHS is a public service, free at point-of-use. As the demand for publicly-funded treatment is high, this will entail joining a waiting list, usually in the ball-park of several months. See this NHS article for more information. Private treatment is funded directly by the individual or by their health insurance provider. People who choose to be seen privately often do so to avoid waiting times.
- In some cases, physio treatment under the NHS may not be conducted one-to-one, but rather over the phone or in a group setting. In private practice, one-to-one appointments are the most common format for consultation.
- Being seen sooner usually means an earlier diagnosis and treatment. This can result in more positive health outcomes, and can avoid long-term health complications. As such, some patients may look to private treatment if their condition is a pressing concern.
This article does not constitute medical advice; we would always recommend calling 111 or visiting the NHS 111 website if you have any specific concerns about your health. In the case of an emergency, call 999.
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