Physical Therapy

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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.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Oct 6
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.
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