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PTA Blog Talk

What's in a Hug?

Published February 15, 2012 3:22 PM by Jason Marketti

Recently I told a patient I was going to place a safety belt on her and reached in to attach the belt. She instinctively hugged me as my arms were around her. This was awkward to say the least. I have told male patients that I am going to place a belt around them and some will stick out their hand so I shake it and proceed with placing my belt. But a hug? What am I supposed to do?

Do I hug back? Do I simply continue with what I am doing and step back? I know this may have been weird for her too because she may have misheard me (is that possible from two feet away?) or she saw me "leaning" into her and did what came natural for her. But I am a virtual stranger to this lady, who I met the day before.

She was cognizant, well aware of her surroundings and understood all of my instructions. I want to know why she hugged me. Maybe it is my good looks? No, that can't be it. Maybe I was kind, possibly. More than likely she was used to it - she taught school at an elementary level. Maybe she flashed back and thought I was one of her pupils. Whatever the reason, it was still strange for me to receive a hug uninvited.


Alot of angst commented upon here! PT is naturally a "hands on" profession. Our patients are very vulnerable and frequently worried/scared. Perhaps your patient was unsure and anxious? We are all different in our levels of comfort via the human touch. I think we can discern the difference between a sign of warmth/uncertainty vs. sexual harassment. Perhaps some of us in this profession are better suited to have a greater ratio of management work vs. patient care? Both skill sets are important.

Jeanne March 2, 2012 1:43 PM


I can see your point in not allowing someone else to enter your personal space, I am the same way and had to really learn to adapt, especially since starting in the pediatric field.

What about staying one step ahead and telling your patient that you are going to place the gaitbelt around them, and then step slightly to your patient's side or even around to their back and place the gaitbelt from a different angle than your arms going around them in a hug-position?

That way there is no confusion as to what your next step is about, and you stay in control of your personal space, as well as allowing your patient to stay in control of their's.


Annemie, Pediatrics - Physical Therapist February 26, 2012 10:09 AM
Jonesboro AR


I understand your point. I didn't mean to infer you were against hugs. Just pointing out that her action may have been nothing more than a different comfort level of hugs. Some people give hugs to complete strangers. It is just who they are. Some people are fine receiving hugs from complete strangers. Not everyone has the same sense of personal space.

From her perspective, your personal space was all up in her personal space when you put on that gait belt. I understand it was by necessity, but she may have seen it differently. That may have been all the invitation she needed.

My point is, it is easy to impose our preferences on other people, assuming if they don't act as we do they are being offensive or inappropriate when in reality they are simply different. She could take offense at your lack of reciprocity, assuming you are rude. Or she could say, "Wow, he must not be as big of a hugger as I am," and adjust accordingly.

Your description just seems like two people who have a different take on hugs. Neither is wrong.

Jane Goude February 21, 2012 11:30 AM

Good observation Jane about the patient steadying herself.  

Unfortunately, it was a tried and true hug meant for me. There was a FWW in front of her and she did not present with any loss of balance or unsteadiness.  

It is not that I am against affection or hugs or dislike them in any way.  I have hugged patients and their family members but with mutual consent.  Receiving a hug without my consent is disturbing.  I should be able to invite people into my personal space, it should not be invaded.

jason marketti February 21, 2012 12:54 AM

I would think the most likely scenario is that it comes naturally to her, as you mentioned. Some people are just huggers. Some people aren't.

I have a dear friend who isn't a hugger; she isn't even a toucher. She likes her personal space, and lots of it! She realizes this about herself and makes an effort with her husband and children to meet their touch needs despite her discomfort with it, especially with her son who senses love through physical touch. Certainly, you aren't obliged to go there with patients.  Just giving an example of the huge difference in how people are wired.

There is inappropriate touch that crosses a line and is easy to call out (sexual harrassment); but when it is a matter of a gap in how two people are made, that gets dicier. You don't want to offend the other person, but you don't want to repeat uncomfortable experiences either.

People are usually good at picking up on body language cues. Chances are if you were stiff enough, she won't try it again. If she does, you can simply explain you aren't a hugger (which you have said in this situation, you aren't). You don't have to elaborate about the stranger part.

One last thought. Is there any chance that she wasn't hugging you at all, but holding on to you? If she was elderly and unsure of exactly what was going to happen next, could she have been scared she was going to be put off balance and was "hugging" you to steady herself? Yes, you told her you were going to put the belt on her, but as silly as this sounds she could have not been certain what that was going to look like.

Jane Goude February 20, 2012 10:28 PM


Thank you for the comment.  

The hug was uninvited. I show great affection to my wife, children, and family but to stangers, NO.  Before touching someone I always tell them what I am going to do so I do not alarm them.  When a stranger reaches for me uninvited it makes me uncomfortable.

I have lived in Europe and in Turkey and there were instances where I was plucked out of my parents arms.  I do not appreciate being handled, hugged or whatever without my consent. It is my body and I should have a choice who touches it just as the patients have a choice who touches them whether it is a surgeon, MD, or physical therapist.  

Jason Marketti February 20, 2012 8:45 PM

Don't over-react. My doctor who has saved my life treats me frequently. He is a D.O. and will perform manipulation therapy on me. During these sessions, we become intimate in a professional, natural way of response. I have discussed my feelings with my psychotherapists. It becomes a familiar way to admire the person who is having a positive impact on one’s life. I have answered questions such as, does this person make you feel better, does this person treat you with respect, and do you feel comforted by this person? What is not to like or even love? I shake my doctor's hand and I have hugged him on occasion when he has elieviated me from excruciating pain. I have given him gifts on holidays and birthdays, when I have hugged him with a pat on the back, which is an acceptable reaction. I admire my physician and I have the utmost respect for him. Do I love him? Probably yes, but not sexually, which I hear from your article, since you mentioned your "looks". Our sterile country should sit back and learn something from our European friends and ancestors. It is not an infraction to love your friend or to touch someone you like, especially when your work, compels you to have physical exchange. Your patient is expressing a form of gratitude, comfort and trusts you to perform a service that will change that person’s current level of pain and physical ailment. Ask yourself if you are suited to your position. The person’s sex should not alarm you either. Choose a faceless, atomically incorrect figure to focus upon and perform your job. Otherwise, you may consider psychiatry as your next achievement.

Robert February 20, 2012 1:13 PM

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About this Blog

    Jason J. Marketti
    Occupation: Physical Therapist Assistant
    Setting: San Jacinto, CA
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