8 Things Your Physical Therapist Wants You to Know

  • patient in physical therapy
    What It Takes to Get You Moving Again
    Physical therapists help treat patients with a wide range of ailments and injuries—everything from Parkinson’s disease and stroke to rotator cuff tears and tennis elbow. Research shows physical therapy can be more effective than surgery in treating some conditions. More of us are expected to need physical therapy in the coming years as our population ages. Here are some tips from real physical therapists on what they want their patients and prospective patients to know. 



  • nurse-guiding-patient
    1. “Relax, you’re not going to get tortured.”
    Patients often fear that “everything is going to be painful and brutal and be really barbaric,” says Matt Holland, a certified sports physical therapist in Houston who often treats pro athletes and others with orthopedic injuries. He says this is a misconception. Therapists’ procedures may sometimes be uncomfortable, but there should not be “a great deal of pain,” says Holland.



  • physical-therapist-stretching-patients-leg
    2. “Don’t expect an instant solution.”
    “I’ve had many patients who just want a quick fix,” says James Dunleavy, a physical therapist in Elizabeth, N.J., who frequently works with post-surgical patients. Holland agrees, noting that patients think therapists can “speed up healing.” But people often need to be seen multiple times over a prolonged period for success. It’s also not always easy to predict how many sessions will be needed. “While some conditions are managed with a specific timeline, many are not,” says Nicole Stout, a physical therapist in Washington, D.C., and member of the board of directors of the American Physical Therapy Association. “The program should be tailored to your needs.”



  • Physical Therapy Exercise for Lower Back
    3. "The physical therapist can’t do it alone.”
    Sometimes patients think all they need to do to get better is show up for treatment, but patients “have to actively participate in their care,” says Dunleavy. “It is not passive one-way treatment.” For example, most patients are assigned homework: exercises they repeat at home a specified number of times each week. Too often, patients neglect this crucial step, which can delay their progress. “Many times the patient does not follow what we give them to do,” Dunleavy says, “or will alter it in a way that results in no help for their condition."



  • man-picking-up-free-weight
    4. “Don’t ignore your restrictions.”
    You’ve hurt your back and have been told not to lift a certain weight level until cleared to do so. Or maybe you have had shoulder surgery and have been prescribed a sling to wear during your recovery. “You should not dismiss any precautions and limitations you may have been given,” warns Holland. Otherwise, you risk extending the time of your disability, hampering the effectiveness of therapy–or even re-injuring yourself. 



  • Health Insurance Forms
    5. “We can work with you if you have insurance limitations.”
    Your insurance may only cover a limited number of sessions. Holland says therapists can work with you to design a course of treatment with this in mind, spacing out visits accordingly so that the benefit isn’t used up too early. For this to work, it’s critical for patients and therapists to communicate, he says, and for you to “stay with the plan” and be consistent with your home care so you stay on track for recovery.



  • Woman Sitting with Laptop
    6. “YouTube can only get you so far.”
    More and more patients today tell Holland they’ve been doing exercises they found themselves on YouTube, but (surprise!) they aren’t getting better. While video can be a great tool to show you how to do exercises at home, it’s better to get videos directly from your therapist. This way, you make sure you are doing the right exercises at the right time for your specific problem, says Holland, adding that his office gives patients digital videos showing the exercises they should do at home.



  • Asian girl reading sms on smarthphone
    7. “Take video of yourself doing your exercises.”
    If you aren’t sure you are doing an exercise or other activity correctly at home and you aren’t due to see your therapist soon, have someone record you practicing it and email the video to your therapist, says Holland. This way, the therapist can check your mechanics and make sure your maneuvers are as they should be. Or, if you’re doing something incorrectly, this allows the therapist to quickly stop you, possibly preventing a relapse or re-injury, and ensuring you are progressing properly. 



  • Autistic boy building with blocks
    8. “For small children, exercises need to be like games.”
    Young children may need physical therapy for conditions such as cerebral palsy. But a two-year-old isn’t likely to understand instructions such as “do 15 squats for me,” points out Deanne Fay, a board-certified pediatric clinical therapist in Arizona. Instead, therapists make exercises more like play, having, for instance, a child squat to pick up a toy car from the ground and placing it on a high table. Therapists do home visits to help parents figure out how to use toys and other household objects in their child’s treatment. “We want to show parents how they can incorporate activities and exercises into daily life,” says Fay.



  • nurse helping patient workout
    Finding the Right Physical Therapist for You
    Physical therapy can help you recover from injuries or surgery, or improve mobility and range of motion related to a host of other conditions. To find a physical therapist, you may want to consider those with specialty certifications (such as in pediatrics or sports), as well as providers recommended by your doctor. You can search your area for therapists here on Healthgrades or through the American Physical Therapy Association website.









8 Things Your Physical Therapist Wants You to Know

About The Author

Lorna Collier has been reporting on health topics—especially mental health and women’s health—as well as technology and education for more than 25 years. Her work has appeared in the AARP Bulletin, Chicago Tribune, U.S. News, CNN.com, the APA’s Monitor on Psychology, and many others. She’s a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the Association of Health Care Journalists.
  1. About Physical Therapist (PT) Careers. American Physical Therapy Association. http://www.apta.org/PTCareers/Overview/
  2. Benefits of Physical Therapy. Move Forward PT (American Physical Therapy Association). http://www.moveforwardpt.com/Benefits/Default.aspx




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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Oct 30
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.