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Is It Time for Physical Therapy?

What to expect if you start physical therapy for your aches and pains.
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

You stretch, you run, you lift, you exercise every day, yet something doesn’t feel quite right. Maybe it’s a nagging pain or stiffness in your joints that won’t go away.

Whatever the problem, maybe it’s time to see a physical therapist.

“We help with motion -- whether that’s in sport, in activities, or at work,” says Mary Ann Wilmarth, DPT, chief of physical therapy at Harvard University Health Services.

Physical therapists (or PTs for short) are trained to treat muscle and joint problems, back pain, and other ailments that can make moving difficult. They also help guide exercise programs for patients undergoing cardiac rehabilitation.

Baby boomers make up the bulk of the patient clientele, Wilmarth says. What brings them to her?

“They find that things are not moving the way they used to, and they are not sure what to do about it,” she says.

Wilmarth also says that high school and college athletes frequently find themselves in need of a PT’s attention because of sports-related injuries, as well as back and neck pain. But her patients run the entire life cycle.

“We see everyone from newborns on up,” Wilmarth says. “I have someone in my clinic who is 99.”

What to Expect

At your first appointment, you will undergo an assessment. That will take about 45 minutes.

“We do an exam and come up with a problem list and a plan,” says Scott Euype, DPT, a physical therapist at the Cleveland Clinic.

That exam will include strength tests to determine if your muscles are working at normal capacity, as well as an evaluation of your range of motion and your balance. Those objective measures will help your PT set treatment benchmarks and aid in devising an exercise plan.

Most patients will then see their physical therapist for several visits. Just how many visits depends on the individual’s needs and progress, and the numbers can vary.

“Six to 12 visits is enough to cover most diagnoses,” Wilmarth says, “but even one to two can get people going in the right way.”

The hardest work always comes first, Wilmarth says, as patients start to work toward relieving their pain and building strength.

“We start with an acute program and then work on a plan that they can fit into their everyday life,” Wilmarth says. “We listen and work with their schedule, because if we make the plan too hard, it won’t happen.”

No Quick Fix

There’s evidence that physical therapy can be more effective than surgery for problems such as low back pain.

But avoiding surgery doesn’t mean that you will have it easy or that a few visits to your PT will cure you.

“Very few injuries need surgery. They need time and work,” says Ryan Petering, MD, a sports medicine specialist at Oregon Health and Science University who often refers patients to physical therapists.

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