Your doctor might suggest this type of treatment if you’ve had an injury or illness that makes it hard to do daily tasks.
Physical therapy (PT) is care that aims to ease pain and help you function, move, and live better. You may need it to:
- Relieve pain
- Improve movement or ability
- Prevent or recover from a sports injury
- Prevent disability or surgery
- Rehab after a stroke, accident, injury, or surgery
- Work on balance to prevent a slip or fall
- Manage a chronic illness like diabetes, heart disease, or arthritis
- Recover after you give birth
- Control your bowels or bladder
- Adapt to an artificial limb
- Learn to use assistive devices like a walker or cane
- Get a splint or brace
People of all ages benefit from physical therapy. It can treat a variety of health problems.
What Is a Physical Therapist?
These licensed health professionals engage in specific graduate training in physical therapy. You may hear them called PTs or physiotherapists.
As of 2016, to be eligible to sit for the national exam, you need to graduate from an accredited higher educational institution with a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. An additional state exam must also be passed to earn a license.
Physical therapists evaluate your condition and develop a care plan that guides your therapy. They may perform hands-on treatments for your symptoms. They also teach you special exercises to help you move and function better.
In most states, you can go directly to a physical therapist without a referral from your doctor. Or your doctor might prescribe it. Check your insurance policy to see if you need a prescription to cover the cost.
If you have a serious illness or injury, a PT won’t take the place of other doctors, but they will work with your doctors and other health care professionals to guide treatments. You’ll feel better and you’ll be more likely to get back full function in the area being treated, and in most cases, faster than without the guidance of a PT.
PTs often have assistants. They’re also trained to do many types of physical treatments.
What Does a PT Do?
At your first therapy session, your PT will examine and assess your needs. They’ll ask you questions about your pain or other symptoms, your ability to move or do everyday tasks, how well you sleep, and your medical history. The objective is to determine a diagnosis of your condition, why you have the condition, including impairments that either caused or are a result of the condition then develop a plan of care to address each.
The PT will administer tests to measure:
- How well you can move around, reach, bend, or grasp
- How well you walk or climb steps
- Your heartbeat or rhythm while active
- Your posture or balance
Then, they’ll work with you to create a treatment plan. It will include your personal goals like functioning and feeling better, plus exercises or other treatments to help you reach them.
You may take less or more time to reach those goals than other people in physical therapy. Everyone is different. You may also have more or fewer sessions than others. It just depends on your needs.
You treatments might include:
- Exercises or stretches guided by your therapist
- Massage, heat, or cold therapy, warm water therapy, or ultrasound to ease muscle pain or spasms
- Rehab to help you learn to use an artificial limb
- Practice with gadgets that help you move or stay balanced, like a cane or walker
Your therapist will watch your progress and adjust your treatments as necessary.
You can do the exercises your therapist teaches you at home between sessions. This will help you stay on track and improve your fitness.
Where Do You Get PT?
PTs sometimes come to your home to guide your therapy. They also work in:
- Outpatient clinics
- Sports medicine centers
- Private medical offices
- Nursing homes
- Assisted living homes
- Rehab centers
- Offices and work sites
- Schools or colleges