There has been some hype lately about incorporating 5 senses into design of products and marketing.   You can read a Slate article entitled “Cultural Synesthesia” here, or even watch a TED talk entitled “Design for all 5 senses” here.  I look at it simply as multi-sensory stimulation and consider how we can use this in healthcare, particularly physical therapy.

It does seem to make sense and I am sure everyone has had a very positive experience in regards to this concept whether you know it or not.  An example can be what most of us do every morning with our cup of joe. Go into your local coffee shop and you will smell the coffee beans, hear the grind of the coffee machines, see the production in work with local baristas and ambience within the brick and mortar construction and accessories on the wall, feel the burlap bags that deliver the coffee, and obviously taste the warmth, bold flavor.   The list could go on and on, with various examples from restaurants and shopping experiences.

I’ll explain how I incorporate 5 senses into my clinical practice:

1. Vision

You can go at this sense from multiple angles. Seeing is believing and by far has the largest impact on patient response. 

A. From the entrance into treatment room

It can be from the initial contact with the waiting room.  A clean, organized, structured waiting room and even treatment areas are key.  I despise seeing therabands, physio balls, pillows, or whatever else is at your office in a chaotic mess.  Clean up between patients and maintain order.  Ever go to a restaurant and the waiter cleans and sets your table while you are there?  Not as good of experience as if it was already set. 

B. Patient “seeing” dysfunction, then results

This is by far the most important aspect, the cause and effect relationship.  This goes back to the old assess / re-assess model.  It can be through manual palpatory assessment, or even more credible, the concordant movement pattern.  Allow the patient to see what the difference is so they know you are helping them.  What is taken from there depends on the individual, but you have done your job.

2. Touch

Get your hands on the patient, one way or another.  It can be either to feel the joint arthrokinematics, palpate the area of pain, or assess the crepitus that your patient is complaining of.  You don’t have to be Miss Feeler to just get patient satisfaction, but provide this hands-on in every session.  Sometimes we tend to lose this aspect of care with research leading away from dependency on clinicians for pain relief and even a greater aspect of patient education.  It can be a small, but recognizable by the patient to hopefully come back in the future. 

3. Hearing

Other than good music playing, it is tough to come up with solutions to this sense.  I will take it from two angles:

A. Cavitation

If the patient has the expectation that their neck or back needs to be popped to feel better, you better believe I’m going down that route (obviously barring any contraindications).  You don’t have to be a cowboy about it. But, we do know that expectation and patient preferences have been shown to lead to better outcomes.  Some authors do say the pop is not necessary, but I disagree, especially on those who think that needs to happen to feel better.

B. Motivation

Sometimes it is just good ol’ treatment policy for the patient to hear they are doing better.  Naturally, you do not want to tell someone a fib but we all need this encouragement and reassurance during rehabilitation.  Work on mentioning this to your patient at each session.

4. Smell

I can think of many funny verbs to put here on not to do, but you can picture them yourselves!  Our product doesn’t give off the pleasant aroma of a cup of coffee or smell of cinnamon in Yankee Candle so it makes this realm difficult.  It would be neat to have a whiff of a certain scent when the person is able to get out of pain (from that “aha” moment when they get out of pain after manual therapy or exercise), and then have that scent vaporized while at home too! Maybe there will be some strong neural connections that could take place to get the same effect.  I don’t know…just brainstorming…any ideas?

5. Taste

Give out blowpops at end of session.  That’s all I got.  No, I’m kidding.  This isn’t quite a sense, but I would make you while the patient is in your office, or closing for discharge, that you give them a taste of everything you have to offer.  You can do this several ways:

A. Asking them if they have any pain or trouble at another body part. 

You are probably already addressing this during the sessions, but always worth the few moments at discharge. The nice thing about physical therapy is that we are musculoskeletal specialists, but are not necessarily grounded by a body part like our orthopedic counterparts.  We can treat the whole body.

B. Show off your equipment/tools. 

I don’t necessarily use much equipment in my practice, but patients are curious and always ask what this or that does if they are not using it (BAPS board always comes up in conversation).  I would say the ultimate tool that gets patients asking about more is dry needling.  Seeing a patient with the needles inserted, with or without electro, is the best advertising there is.  Make sure you talk to your current patient about what you treat with dry needling.  This normally opens up many doors.

Do you have any other suggestions?  I would love to hear your feedback.






  1. Hey Harrison,

    Great blog post. I enjoyed the Ted Talk about the 5 senses and I like how you applied the concepts to Physical Therapy.


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