What Is Physical Therapy?
Doctors often recommend physical therapy for people who have been injured or who have movement problems from an illness, disease, or disability.
After an injury, physical therapists work to decrease pain, improve movement, and help people return to daily activities. They teach them exercises designed to help them regain strength and range of motion, and also show them how to prevent future injuries.
A person might need physical therapy any time a problem with movement limits their daily activities.
It also can help someone manage pain, whether that pain is caused by bad posture, an injury, or a disease like arthritis. When done properly and consistently, physical therapy can help prevent permanent damage and recurring problems.
What Happens in Physical Therapy?
Most physical therapy uses a combination of techniques to relieve pain and boost coordination, strength, endurance, flexibility, and range of motion. Physical therapists (PTs) often ask patients to use exercise equipment like bikes and treadmills.
A PT also may treat the affected area with heat or cold, electrical stimulation, ultrasound, massage, and even aquatic therapy (exercise in a swimming pool). In many cases, PTs will do soft tissue massage on injured areas and oversee the patient during stretching routines.
Physical therapists usually give their patients exercises to do at home. These at-home exercises work with the treatments and exercises done in the PT's office to help a person heal better, faster, and safely.
How Can I Find a Physical Therapist?
Like doctors, some physical therapists can specialize in different areas: A particular therapist might work mostly with sports injuries, for example. Others may be experts in head injuries or in caring for wound and muscle damage in people with burns or skin injuries.
Your doctor can recommend a PT for you or contact your medical insurance provider. You also can search online at:
The First Visit
Many states require a referral from your doctor before you can be evaluated and treated by a PT. If you're under the age of 18 and going to a hospital or clinic, it's a good idea to take a parent or guardian with you the first time. Not only will you have support and someone to talk to about the experience, but you'll also have someone to help with your exercises at home.
Most likely you'll see a PT in a clinic or office. But some PTs work in schools, helping students with injuries, disabilities, or chronic (long-lasting) conditions. When you go to your physical therapy appointments, try to wear loose-fitting clothing and sneakers so your PT can accurately measure your strength and range of motion. If you have a knee problem, it's helpful to wear shorts to your therapy visit.
At your first visit, the PT will evaluate your needs and may ask how you're feeling, if you have any pain, and where that pain falls on a scale of 0 to 10. It's important to be honest with your PT, so they can treat your condition properly.
Using the results of the exam and your doctor's recommendations, the PT will design a treatment plan. Many times, they will start treatment during the first visit, including giving you exercises to do at home.
The PT will probably ask you to go through these at-home exercises while you're there to make sure you know how to do them on your own. The PT likely will write down the exercises for you as a reminder of what to do and in which order (if any). Follow the plan exactly — most of the benefit of PT comes from the routines you do at home.
Ask for another explanation if you don't completely understand an exercise to do at home. It's easy to feel confused or overwhelmed with information during a first treatment session — lots of people (adults included) feel this way.
Talk with the PT about how the exercises should feel when you do them — for example, if you're supposed to feel any pain or unusual sensations, and whether you need to stop if you do.
Some people like to keep track of their progress during PT by taking notes on how often they do the exercises, how they feel, and how sensations change. Doing this can help you and your PT monitor your treatment.
Physical therapy sessions typically last 30–60 minutes. You might go once a week or many times, depending on why you're getting therapy. As you make progress, you might go for shorter visits less often. You'll learn new ways to continue your healing.
In big offices, you may meet with different PTs during the course of your treatment. Don't worry if you see a new face, but make sure each PT working with you knows your condition and be comfortable asking questions of each therapist. Remember: If you don't like the treatment, or something feels wrong, speak up.
Although the long-term goal is pain relief and recovery, physical therapy itself won't always feel good. Depending on your injury, you may feel uncomfortable or not used to moving the area. It's important to stick to the routine — and to breathe, be kind to yourself, and ask your PT for other hints on getting through. It's also important not to put yourself through too much or to overdo it.
If you feel pain, talk to your PT about it. "No pain, no gain" is no way to approach physical therapy. Pain is a warning signal, and by pushing yourself through too much pain, you can do more damage.
What Else Should I Know?
Following a few simple steps can help you make your physical therapy a success:
- Stick to the plan. It's important to follow the PT's instructions. Do your exercises at home in the number, order, and frequency noted. Don't skip any, and don't do extra exercises — following the directions will help you heal faster and get moving again. But if a specific exercise is making you feel worse, put it on hold and talk with your physical therapist.
- Know your body. It helps to know what's going on and why. Ask questions and pay attention when the PT explains the injury and the treatment. You'll probably be amazed by the way your body heals itself. And you'll want to know how the affected area functions so you can spot problems or avoid further injury in the future.
- Talk to your PT if you have problems. If things hurt, if you have questions, or if you're not making progress the way you thought you would: ask. The PT is there to help you.
- Celebrate your successes. When you follow the plan, you should start to see a difference in a few weeks or months. Bouncing back from more serious surgeries may take many months or a year, but there will be milestones along the way. Take a moment to appreciate the difference from where you started! Sometimes, recovery can feel frustrating and slow. But it helps to stop and enjoy the successes, no matter how small they may seem.
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
© 1995- The Nemours Foundation. KidsHealth® is a registered trademark of The Nemours Foundation. All rights reserved.
Images sourced by The Nemours Foundation and Getty Images.