Physical Therapy: Frequently Asked Questions

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Woman and Doctor

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?

What exactly is physical therapy?

PT is a type of medical care. It helps people whose movement has become limited for some reason. This can make it hard to do basic day-to-day things. PT can help you overcome those challenges.

Your ability to move is called "mobility." For some people, the goal of PT is to keep or improve their mobility. For people who've lost mobility, the goal is to get it back. Mobility makes you more independent and live a full, active life. The PT exercises you'll learn and the treatments you'll get also can help ease pain. All of this should improve your quality of life.

To do this, your physical therapist will create a plan just for you. The therapist will help you make the most of your physical abilities. The PT plan will help you meet your personal goals.

Who administers physical therapy?

Physical therapists and physical therapy assistants are the healthcare providers who you'll work with for PT. A physical therapist has special training to diagnose and manage physical disorders. Your physical therapist will be licensed by your state. A physical therapy assistant is also trained and licensed. This person must work under the supervision of a physical therapist.

Some physical therapists have had extra training to become specialists in a particular care area. For instance, they might focus on PT for older people, children, athletes or women.

Where do you get physical therapy?

PT is available in a number of settings. You might get PT while in the hospital. That often is the case for people who've had an injury, surgery, or a serious health problem like a stroke. Some people get PT in a rehab facility. They don’t need to be in the hospital but aren't ready to return home. If you're already at home and need PT, you might have sessions at an outpatient or walk-in clinic. Some people even get PT in their home. This would depend on your condition and your insurance coverage.

What happens during a physical therapy session?

Your physical therapist will do an evaluation. He or she will ask a lot of questions about your condition and how it affects your life. You'll also have a physical exam. The therapist might watch you walk or do certain activities. The evaluation will help your therapist develop your treatment plan. Together, you'll discuss the goals for your treatment. Be sure to let the therapist know what you want to be able to do once treatment ends.

Once your treatment starts, your physical therapist will monitor your progress. The therapist may change your treatment plan, if needed.

What types of treatment does physical therapy include?

You have many treatment options with PT. If you are weak, you might start with manipulation. The therapist would move your body for you to keep your joints from getting stiff. Hands-on therapy might also include massage. As you regain use of your body, you may do exercises to get stronger and move more easily. Your therapist also might use ice, heat, electrical stimulation, sound waves, laser therapy, or other treatments. The type of PT you get might change from one session to the next. It almost always changes over time, as you get better. Everything is done with your goals in mind.

Does insurance cover physical therapy?

Physical therapy is a major part of rehabilitation and recovery. Because of that, most insurance plans cover PT. That includes private insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, VA hospitals, and clinics and workers' compensation. Even some auto insurance policies include PT coverage.

Of course, all insurance coverage depends on your situation. Many policies require a referral from your doctor. Also, you may have out-of-pocket costs and copays. You also may have a limit on the number of PT sessions your insurance will pay for.

Be smart. Before you start PT, talk with your physical therapist. Find out the likely number of sessions you'll need. Ask what the fee is. Then, check with your insurance provider to learn what will be covered. That way you'll know what dollar amount, if any, you'll be responsible for.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Oct 24
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.

  1. Role of Physical Therapist. American Physical Therapy Association.

  2. Preparing for Your Visit with a Physical Therapist. American Physical Therapy Association.

  3. About Physical Therapist Careers. American Physical Therapy Association.

  4. Choosing Your Physical Therapist. American Physical Therapy Association.

  5. Understanding Payment for Physical Therapy Services. American Physical Therapy Association.