Physical Therapy

Was this helpful?
What is physical therapy?

Physical therapy, also called physiotherapy, is a program to help people return to full strength, function and mobility after a sickness, an injury or surgery. Physical therapy is a nonsurgical treatment option to correct a medical problem. Physical therapy can also help someone with a disability remain active and independent as long as possible. When the patient is consistent with physical therapy and follows the recommended guidelines, exercises and other techniques, they can help prevent the problem from getting progressively worse or recurring.

Physical therapists often combine several techniques to help you move without pain or with less pain. These include stretching and balance exercises, strength training, massage, cold and heat therapy, and electrical stimulation. In addition to adult and pediatric physical therapy options, there are also certain exercises to treat specific conditions, such as sports injuries or arthritis. When you visit a physical therapist, he or she will create a plan customized to benefit your situation.

Why is physical therapy performed?

Doctors recommend physical therapy to help restore proper physical movement and function and help a patient recover surgery or injury. Physical therapy can also help prevent injuries or keep a problem from worsening. Beginning physical therapy as soon as it’s safe to do so often increases the likelihood of successful recovery. It’s important to follow your physical therapist’s recommendations to achieve the best outcome. Reasons why your doctor might recommend physical therapy include:

  • Relieve and manage pain symptoms

  • Reduce stiffness due to joint conditions, such as arthritis, spondylitis or gout

  • Speed recovery of an injury to the spine, joints or other areas

  • Recover function and prevent further damage due to stroke or diseases, such as Parkinson’s

  • Improve quality of life for people with cancer, heart disease, or other health conditions

  • Speed recovery after surgery

Who performs physical therapy?

When a doctor or orthopedic surgeon refers you to physical therapy, they will share any information and diagnosis about your condition or injury. A professional physical therapist, also called a physiotherapist, will evaluate your condition, symptoms, balance, range of motion, or your ability to perform daily living activities. These healthcare professionals must have a degree in physical therapy, usually a graduate degree, and are licensed and certified to perform physical therapy. It’s important to be comfortable with your physical therapist, so find one who listens to you and can explain your treatment plan and exercises in a way that you can understand.

Because children’s musculoskeletal systems are still developing, pediatric physical therapists are trained to treat childhood conditions and injuries with kids’ growth in mind. These therapists can treat newborns with clubfoot to teens with sports injuries. While pediatric physical therapists can treat most conditions related to children’s movement problems, some specialize in sports physical therapy, also called sports physiotherapy. They focus on helping young athletes return to playing sports safely after getting hurt and protecting them from future injuries.

How is physical therapy performed?

A physical therapist usually works from an office or at a hospital or clinic. Some physical therapists visit patients at school, home or a sports facility. Physical therapy uses a variety of movement exercises and stretches depending on the part of the body and the condition being treated. A physical therapy session may also involve using a stationary bicycle or treadmill, strength exercises with weights or bands, or exercising in a pool to reduce impact. Physical therapists may massage or apply heat or cold to an affected area or electrical stimulation to calm nerves that are causing pain. Treatment plans usually include stretching or balance exercise instructions to do at home on a consistent schedule.

What to expect during physical therapy

At your first visit, your physical therapist will do a physical exam, review your referring doctor’s notes or diagnosis, and possibly order or perform additional tests to learn more about your condition and general health. Your physical therapist will discuss your goals for therapy and design a treatment plan specifically for you. At each visit, talk with your physical therapist about any pain you are experiencing including the pain level, what activities cause pain, or if it is pain while resting, and if it is affecting your sleep. Any information you can provide will help your physical therapist further modify your treatment plan. Some of the physical therapy treatment techniques can include:

  • Stretching exercises to increase flexibility

  • Range-of-motion exercises to maintain or recover lost movement ability

  • Exercises to improve coordination and balance

  • Massage or joint mobilization

  • Applications of heat or cold to relieve pain and speed recovery

  • Electric stimulation or ultrasound to relieve pain

What are the risks and potential complications of physical therapy?

Most of the time physical therapy is safe while under the care of a professional physical therapist. Physical therapy treatment plans are designed for your unique condition and goals in mind. Be sure to talk openly with your physical therapist about any pain you are experiencing or any questions you have about proper exercise or home care techniques.

During physical therapy, you may experience:  

  • Worsening of pre-existing conditions

  • Continued pain

  • No improvement in flexibility, mobility and strength

  • Increased metabolism, heart rate or blood pressure for chest physical therapy

  • Falling during physical therapy exercises, leading to broken bones

  • Fractures in some premature babies

To reduce your risk of complications, be sure you know how to perform your exercises properly. If you don’t understand what you’re supposed to do, ask your physical therapist to help you get it right before going home.

How do I prepare for physical therapy?

First, prepare yourself to be an active participant in your physical therapy session. When you go to a session, wear loose-fitting clothes and comfortable shoes so the therapist can evaluate your movement during exercises. If you’re working on knee exercises, you may want to wear shorts for your appointment.

Questions to ask your physical therapist

If it’s your first time going to physical therapy, you may have many questions. Some of them could include:

  • How long will each session last?

  • How long will it take for me to see results?

  • When will I be able to perform the exercises on my own without coming in for a session?

  • When can I stop doing physical therapy?

  • What equipment will I need to use during my physical therapy?

  • What should I do if I experience pain while doing physical therapy?

What can I expect after physical therapy?

The goal of physical therapy is to restore or improve your body’s normal function, including strength, mobility and flexibility. Some people will experience a full recovery from their condition, but some people may have residual pain or limited range of motion. Your recovery depends on several factors, including the problem you have and whether you follow your physical therapist’s instructions exactly as directed. 

How long will it take to recover?

There are many variables in a recovery process involving physical therapy. For some conditions, recovery could be as little as a few weeks or a year or longer. Chronic conditions, such as arthritis, may require lifelong physical therapy. In these cases, a physical therapist will develop a plan for you to do at home on a regular basis to keep office visits to a minimum. Following the physical therapy techniques properly and consistently increases the likelihood of a successful, speedy recovery.

Will I feel pain?

You might feel pain during physical therapy, and this is usually a sign that your body isn’t ready for that level of movement yet. Your physical therapist will likely recommend backing off to an easier level of activity until your body is strong enough and flexible enough to move to the next level.

How might physical therapy affect my everyday life?

With successful physical therapy, patients usually have improved independence, less pain, and fewer challenges with sports, exercise, and daily activities. People being treated with sports physical therapy may be able to safely return to competitive sports after a successful recovery.

Was this helpful?
Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2017 Dec 6
  1. Physical Rehabilitation at the Hospital. Johns Hopkins Medicine.,111
  2. Role of a Physical Therapist. American Physical Therapy Association.
  3. What Is Physical Therapy?
  4. Physical therapy. Mayfield Clinic.
  5. The ABCs of Pediatric Physical Therapy. American Physical Therapy Association.
  6. Physical Therapy for Arthritis. Arthritis Foundation.
  7. Side Effects of Physical Therapy. Florida Hospital.
  8. Sports Physical Therapy. Seattle Children’s Hospital.
  9. Sports Physical Therapy. Texas Children’s Hospital.
Explore Physical Therapy
  • A physical therapist (PT) specializes in improving and restoring mobility, strength, flexibility and balance.
    January 17, 2018
  • A physical medicine and rehabilitation doctor treats people with conditions that affect physical and mental ability.
    January 17, 2018
  • You might think that physical therapy (PT) is just for people who need to get back on their feet after an injury or surgery. Or that physical therapists are simply exercise experts. You might think that PT only happens at a hospital or rehabilitation center. None of these are true. In fact, there are a lot of things you might not know about physical therapy. Here are six.
    November 28, 2016
  • Physical therapy (PT) is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Your physical therapist will develop a plan of treatment specific to your needs. This plan might include several types of therapy. Options are hands-on techniques as well as many types of exercise. Your plan may also include such techniques as electrical and sound wave stimulation. Here are the details on six effective techniques and how they might help you.
    November 16, 2016
Recommended Reading
Next Up
  • If you have a long-term (chronic) health condition, you might benefit from physical therapy (PT). PT is part of the treatment plan for many conditions. It's especially helpful for conditions that make it hard for you to enjoy day-to-day activities. PT can help ease pain and make it easier for you to get around and stay active. This can help you stay independent. In turn, that can improve your quality of life. Here's how PT can help with six specific medical issues.
  • If you've had a recent injury or surgery, physical therapy (PT) may be an important part of your recovery. Your doctor may prescribe PT to improve your movement. PT can also help reduce pain, speed healing, and prevent stiffness or weakness that could lead to a disability. Physical therapy also helps you stay fit while you recover. Here are common ailments that PT can help.
  • To many people, physical therapy (PT) means exercises and treatments to help with movement. That's not all there is to PT, however. There are many other types of PT for many different needs. 
  • Does your doctor want you to get physical therapy (PT)? That might be the case if you recently had an injury or had surgery. PT may be a key part of your recovery. It also can be helpful if you have a long-term health condition—such as arthritis—that keeps you from being able to move around. But, what's involved? And how will it help?
  • Everyone's physical therapy (PT) is a bit different. When you start PT, your therapist will create a treatment plan tailored to you. Together, you'll set goals for what you want to accomplish. That might be better movement or less pain. It might be regaining function. Maybe your goal is to prevent disability. How long it takes you to reach your goals depends on a lot of things.
  • Physical therapy (PT) is a form of medical care given by licensed healthcare providers. Specialized care can be expensive. PT is no exception. The good news is that most insurance plans cover at least some PT sessions. But, you may have out-of-pocket costs like you do for other treatments.
  • Sometimes, it's best to start physical therapy as soon as possible. That means it might start while you're still in the hospital after an injury, surgery or serious medical condition. For instance, PT after a stroke starts in the hospital. It may begin within days of the event.
  • Physical therapy (PT) is part of a treatment plan for many people dealing with an injury or illness. The goal is to help you move better so you can do what you need to do day-to-day.
Answers to Your Health Questions
Trending Videos