Physical Therapist: Your Expert in Regaining Strength & Mobility
What is a physical therapist?
A physical therapist (PT) specializes in improving and restoring mobility, movement, strength, flexibility, balance and coordination in people of all ages. A PT evaluates and treats injuries and movement problems with exercises and other physical methods. PTs can often help people avoid surgery, as well as prevent and minimize pain, loss of function, and disability.
A PT typically:
Reviews and evaluates a patient’s medical history and his or her mobility and physical functioning
Tests and measures balance, coordination, strength, range of motion, posture muscle performance, respiration, and motor function
Diagnoses movement dysfunctions
Works with patients to develop an individualized treatment plan based on their medical history, lifestyle, personal needs, and fitness and mobility goals
Prescribes exercises and other physical treatment techniques
Evaluates treatment progress and makes adjustments to the plan as needed
Educates patients about home techniques to optimize mobility, strength, and overall fitness
Consults and collaborates with a patient’s entire medical and rehabilitation team
Who should see a physical therapist?
Many people will see a physical therapist (PT) when their doctor diagnoses a disease, injury, disorder or condition that affects or limits mobility, balance, strength, posture, motor function, flexibility, or coordination. Physical therapy can benefit people with a wide variety of conditions, including cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), pregnancy, stroke, heart failure, hip fracture, and knee replacement.
People with pain from arthritis, herniated discs, osteoporosis, overuse injuries, and sprains can also benefit from physical therapy. In some cases, a course of physical therapy may reduce or eliminate the need for surgery or pain medication.
When should you see a physical therapist?
Depending on the laws of your state, you may or may not need a doctor’s referral to see a physical therapist (PT). You should also check with your insurance plan, Medicare plan, or other healthcare plan to see if you need to get a doctor’s referral before seeing a PT.
Consider seeking care from an experienced physical therapist if you develop any of these symptoms or conditions:
Chronic fatigue, muscle pain, or swelling in the arms or legs
Decreased range of motion of a joint or other body part
Delayed motor development in a child
Desire to prevent athletic or work injuries and maximize performance
Disability or reduced ability to perform the activities of daily living
Discomforts of pregnancy, such as pelvic or back pain
Joint pain or swelling
Overweight and obesity
Poor tolerance of exercise or activities
What conditions and diseases does a physical therapist treat?
A physical therapist provides exercise and other therapies for conditions and diseases including:
Bone, joint, and muscle conditions including arthritis, osteoporosis, sports injuries, fractures, ligament sprains and tears, tendon strains, dislocated joints, herniated disc, tendinitis, bursitis, rotator cuff tears, and joint replacement surgery
Brain, nerve, and spinal cord conditions including cerebral palsy, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, stroke, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, Parkinson’s disease, and traumatic brain or spinal cord injury
Disabling infectious diseases including HIV/AIDS
Lymphedema including swelling of the arm or legs due to surgical removal of lymph nodes; abdominal or pelvic tumors; chest tumors; or a heart, kidney or liver condition
What tests does a physical therapist perform or order?
A physical therapist can perform a wide variety of assessments and measurements including:
Ambulation tests including time, gait and posture tests
Balance tests including reach tests, dizziness tests, coordination tests, and fall evaluations
Functional status tests including cognition, thinking, attention, quality of life evaluation, daily activities evaluation, stroke disability evaluation, motor function, pain scales, and fatigue ratings
Pediatric evaluations including developmental scales, balance tests, and disability scores
Physical examination including vital signs, reflexes, anthropometrics (height, weight, or size of the body or body parts), body mass index, range of motion, endurance, muscle performance, and strength
What procedures and treatments does a physical therapist perform or order?
A physical therapist can order or perform various procedures and treatments including:
Gait and treadmill training including therapy to improve balance, stability, and walking speed
Hydrotherapy including individual and group exercise programs performed in a heated pool to decrease muscle stiffness, spasms and pain
Joint mobilization and range-of-motion exercises including manual manipulation by the physical therapist to improve movement of stiff or painful joints
Mobility aids including canes, crutches, walkers, and wheelchairs
Orthotics and prosthetics including the proper use and care of prosthetic limbs
Specialized treatments including soft-tissue massage, vestibular (inner ear) rehabilitation, wound care, lymphatic drainage, and pelvic strengthening exercises for urinary incontinence
Spinal manipulation including manual mobilization by the physical therapist to improve movement of the spine
Therapeutic exercises including exercises to improve balance, endurance, cardiovascular health, strength, flexibility, and movement, while balancing the limitations of illness, disease or injury
Therapeutic techniques including hot and cold therapy, traction, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), therapeutic ultrasound, laser therapy, and electrical muscle stimulation (EMS)
Physical therapist training and certification
All states license physical therapists (PTs) and regulate physical therapy practice. However, requirements vary somewhat from state to state. The qualifications of a PT typically include:
Graduation from an accredited physical therapy program with a master’s degree or a doctoral degree (Doctor of Physical Therapy, DPT)
Passage of the National Physical Therapy Examination administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy
Most states require PTs to participate in a continuing education program in order to maintain licensure.
Physical therapists can pursue additional education and training to become a Board-Certified Clinical Specialist. The certification program was developed by the American Physical Therapy Association and is governed by the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialists. Specialties include:
Cardiovascular and pulmonary therapy focuses on treating people with heart and lung diseases or those who have had heart or lung surgery.
Clinical electrophysiology focuses on wound management and using electrotherapy and physical agents including transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS).
Geriatrics focuses on treating diseases and conditions of older adults including cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, incontinence, balance problems, and osteoporosis.
Neurology focuses on treating people with neurological disorders including cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, and brain and spinal cord injury.
Orthopedics focuses on treating people with injuries and disorders of the bone, muscle and joints.
Pediatrics focuses on treating diseases and conditions of childhood such as developmental delays.
Sports focuses on treating injuries and conditions of athletes.