Types of Physical Therapy

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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. 

Here's a sampling of the various types of physical therapy.

Physical Therapy for Mobility

An injury, surgery or illness can make it hard for you to move normally. You might have a swollen and stiff knee from surgery or arthritis. Or, perhaps you lost movement in your limbs because of a stroke. A physical therapist has many treatment techniques to help with these problems.

  • Manipulation. Your therapist may use his or her hands to move your joints through their full range of movement. Manipulation also includes massage therapy.
  • Therapeutic exercise. You can learn exercises to strengthen your muscles and joints. Other exercise can help you become more flexible and improve your range of motion. Exercise can boost your heart health and endurance.
  • Other therapies. These include heat, ice and the stimulation of muscles and nerves with electric energy or sound waves. Your therapist also may fit you for and show you how to use mobility aids like crutches, shoe inserts, or braces.

Physical Therapy for Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is pain that lasts for more than three months. The pain might stem from an injury, surgery or a disease. This type of pain can keep you from your daily activities. It can hurt your quality of life. Physical therapy for chronic pain may include:

  • Education. Your therapist will give you strategies for managing your pain day to day.
  • Exercises. You'll learn strengthening and flexibility exercises to reduce stress and strain on areas causing pain.
  • Manipulation. This is a gentle, hands-on technique. It involves passive movement. That means your therapist moves your joints that might be stiff or sore. Massage often is part of this type of PT. It can help reduce swelling and stiffness that contribute to pain.
  • Body mechanics. You'll learn how to improve your posture and movement. This can help ease pain and stress on your body.

Physical Therapy for Vertigo

Vertigo is a severe type of dizziness. It makes you feel as if you or the space around you is spinning. Sometimes this starts suddenly when you change positions. You may fall or feel nauseous. Episodes may come and go for weeks or months. It usually goes away over time. But, PT may help you recover more quickly.

Vertigo often occurs because of a problem with the fluid in your inner ear. To resolve this, your therapist may use a treatment called an Epley maneuver. It's a series of head positions. The therapist will move you into each position. You hold the position for up to two minutes. The therapy can be repeated until the vertigo stops.

Physical Therapy for Urinary Incontinence

Urinary incontinence is the loss of bladder control. Urge incontinence involves leaking urine when your bladder is full. This type is more common in women. Stress incontinence is when urine leaks when you laugh, sneeze or cough. That's usually caused by weakness in the pelvic muscles. They're the muscles that control your bladder.

PT can help you gain better control of your pelvic muscles. It may include:

  • Learning how to find and squeeze the muscles. This may involve biofeedback or electrical stimulation.
  • Learning exercises that you can repeat during the day to make the muscles stronger.
  • Learning how to strengthen your thigh, buttocks and belly muscles. This also can help with incontinence.

Physical Therapy for Lymphedema

Lymphedema is the buildup of lymph fluid in your tissues. This causes swelling. Normally, lymph fluid circulates through your tissues and returns to your blood. Lymphedema usually results from a blockage that keeps this from happening. Cancer and some cancer treatments—surgery and radiation—can cause this.

A physical therapist can help by:

  • Teaching you exercises that help your muscles push lymph fluid out of tissues
  • Doing massage to move lymph tissue out of tissues
  • Fitting you with compression sleeves or wraps to keep fluid from building up
  • Teaching you about body positions and diet changes that can help

If therapy doesn’t seem to be working for you, talk with your therapist. Physical therapy and rehabilitation is an evolving field of healthcare, and there are many techniques, types and approaches to get you on the path to wellness.

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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. About Physical Therapist (PT) Careers.American Physical Therapy Association. http://www.apta.org/PTCareers/Overview/
  2. Manual Therapy Techniques. American Physical Therapy Association. http://guidetoptpractice.apta.org/content/1/SEC38.extract
  3. Physical Therapist’s Guide to Chronic Pain Syndromes. American Physical Therapy Association. http://www.moveforwardpt.com/symptomsconditionsdetail.aspx?cid=dd79c11d-9ac3-42cc-bcc2-2edd5079a57a
  4. Physical Therapist’s Guide to Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV). American Physical Therapy Association. http://www.moveforwardpt.com/symptomsconditionsdetail.aspx?cid=52822493-32f3-4d4c-8c56-8e18c41b2f85
  5. Physical Therapist’s Guide to Incontinence. American Physical Therapy Association. http://www.moveforwardpt.com/symptomsconditionsdetail.aspx?cid=a357f7d4-02f1-49cc-b03c-299c69d6dfc6
  6. Physical Therapist’s Guide to Lymphedema. American Physical Therapy Association. http://www.moveforwardpt.com/symptomsconditionsdetail.aspx?cid=8fadc252-aa62-472d-9f22-977837a30acc