Physical therapy helps people get back full strength
and movement in key parts of the body after an illness or injury. Physical therapy
doesn't just help a person rebuild strength and range of motion, though — 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.
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.
In addition to exercising the affected area, a PT also may treat it 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.
What to Look for in a Physical Therapist
You'll want to be sure a physical therapist is qualified to treat you. All PTs
must have an advanced degree in physical therapy and be licensed by the state to practice.
The entry-level degree for a physical therapist is a doctoral degree (DPT).
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. Some PTs focus specifically on athletes, children, babies, the elderly,
or the very ill.
Your doctor may recommend the right PT for you — but you also need to be
sure you feel comfortable with that PT. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Some good
How much experience do you have treating people with my condition?
How will you decide which treatment program I need?
What equipment will you use to treat my condition? (This prepares you for when
the PT suggests a particular piece of equipment.)
How long will each treatment session last?
How long do you think I will need to come for treatment?
If you don't feel comfortable (for example, the PT doesn't answer your questions
or can't explain your routine in a way that you understand), let your doctor know
and ask for another recommendation. You also can ask
your medical insurance provider or check out the American Physical Therapy Association's
The First Visit
Many (but not all) 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 —
and maybe even give you a gentle nudge when you're feeling unmotivated!
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.
During your first visit, the PT will evaluate your needs and may ask questions
about 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 he or she 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, your PT 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. Many PTs give their patients
a piece of paper with the exercises written on them as a reminder of what to do and
in which order (if any). Be sure to follow the plan exactly — most of the benefit
of PT comes from the routines a person does at home.
Don't be afraid to ask for another explanation if you don't completely understand
an exercise that you'll be doing 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 — this
will help you and your PT monitor your treatment.
Physical therapy sessions typically last 30–60 minutes each, from one to
many times a week, depending on why a person is receiving therapy. As you make
progress, your visits may change in length and frequency. You'll learn new techniques
to help 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 that you're comfortable asking questions
of each therapist. Remember: If you don't like the treatment, or something feels wrong,
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, make sure to 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.
Other Things to Keep in Mind
Following a few simple steps can help you make your PT treatment 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
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.