What Is Physical Therapy?

Medically Reviewed by Shruthi N on May 28, 2024
7 min read

Physical therapy (PT) is care that aims to ease pain and help you function, move, and live better. 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 is performed by a health care professional called a physical therapist. You may only need to see your physical therapist for a few weeks, but for some conditions, you may require regular visits.




People of all ages benefit from physical therapy. It can treat a variety of health problems.

You may need physical therapy to:

  • Ease pain
  • Improve movement or ability to do daily tasks
  • 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 such as 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 such as a walker or cane
  • Get a splint or brace
  • Improve sports performance

Physical therapy may help treat many different medical conditions, including:

  • Neck pain
  • Back pain
  • Knee pain
  • Hip pain
  • Wrist pain (carpal tunnel syndrome)
  • Sports injuries
  • Tendinitis and other tendon problems
  • Rotator cuff tears
  • Knee injuries
  • Jaw problems
  • Concussions
  • Strokes
  • Spinal cord and brain injuries
  • Lung diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Muscular dystrophy
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Cystic fibrosis

There are many different subspecialties in physical therapy, which include the following:

Cardiovascular and pulmonary PT: This form of physical therapy features rehabilitation programs for people who have heart conditions (such as heart attacks and angina) or lung diseases (such as asthma and COPD).

Decongestive PT: Often called complete decongestive therapy (CDT), this form of therapy treats a condition called lymphedema, which is damage to the lymph nodes that may be caused by some cancer treatments.

Geriatric PT: Some physical therapists specialize in working with older women and men to treat age-related problems with movement and function.

Neurological PT: People who have had strokes or brain injuries, or have neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis, may benefit from neurological PT.

Orthopedic PT: The purpose of orthopedic physical therapy is to help you recover from injuries, such as breaking a bone or getting hurt while playing sports, or after surgery.

Pediatric PT: A physical therapist who specializes in pediatric physical therapy works with infants and children to help them overcome medical conditions or injuries that can interfere with normal development.

Pelvic floor rehabilitation: This type of physical therapy tones muscles in your pelvic region (where your trunk meets the tops of your legs), which can help ase conditions such as urinary incontinence (leaking urine) and some sexual problems.

Sports PT: This discipline of physical therapy focuses on helping athletes recover from injuries and achieve top performance.

Vestibular and balance therapy: If you experience frequent dizziness or poor balance, your doctor may recommend vestibular and balance therapy.

Wound care therapy: If you have a wound (after surgery, for example), a physical therapist can help ensure that it heals well and that you recover normal movement in a timely way.

Physical therapy and occupational therapy are related but different forms of treatment. In physical therapy, a health care provider uses exercises, education, and devices to improve your ability to move. In occupational therapy, a health care provider uses exercises and other strategies to help you improve your ability to perform daily activities, such as getting dressed, bathing, or dining. Many people who have been injured or are recovering from an illness can benefit from both physical therapy and occupational therapy.

Physical therapists are specialists trained to treat conditions that affect how your body moves. They may perform hands-on treatments for your symptoms and teach you special exercises to help you move and function better. Physical therapists may also be called PTs or physiotherapists.

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 regain full function in the area being treated, and in most cases, faster than without the guidance of a PT.

Physical therapist education requirements

To become a physical therapist in the U.S., you must have a bachelor’s degree, and then complete an education program that includes courses in a variety of medical topics, such as biology, anatomy, and many others. A typical physical therapist candidate spends about 3 years studying before they earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree. To practice physical therapy in a state, you must pass a test to earn your license.

While physical therapists study medical topics and must have a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree, they are not medical doctors (MDs) or doctors of osteopathy (DOs). A physical therapist can play an important role in your health and well-being, but they aren't permitted to do many of the things that medical doctors offer to patients. For example, a physical therapist can’t diagnose diseases, prescribe drugs, or perform surgery.

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, 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), and then develop a plan of care to address each.

The PT will do tests to measure:

  • How well you can move around, reach, bend, or grasp
  • How well you can walk or climb steps
  • Your heart rate and blood pressure
  • Your posture or balance

Then, they’ll work with you to create a treatment plan. It will include your personal goals, such as 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 depends on your needs.

Physical therapy treatments

Your treatments might include:

Exercises and stretches: Getting your muscles moving, toned, and loosened is a critical part of physical therapy. The goal is to help you get stronger, with better balance and coordination.

Massage: If you have ever had a massage, you know how good they feel. But physical therapists use gentle rubbing and kneading to ease pain.

Manual therapy: In this form of hands-on treatment, a physical therapist uses human touch to help patients recover from injuries and other medical conditions.

Cold therapy: Some physical therapists use or recommend ice packs or other forms of cold therapy for treating injuries such as ankle sprains.

Hydrotherapy: If you are recovering from an injury or surgery, your physical therapist might recommend exercising in water, which allows you to regain strength safely.

Ultrasound: You may think of ultrasound as a tool used for diagnosing disease, but it can also be used to treat injuries to muscles and other soft tissues.

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS): This treatment uses low-voltage electrical pulses to ease pain.

Dry needling: A technique similar to acupuncture, dry needling is used by some physical therapists to relieve pain.

Rehabilitation after receiving an artificial limb: If you had to have a limb (such as your lower leg) removed due to disease, a physical therapist can help you adjust to using an artificial limb.

Learning to use assistive devices: If you need to use a cane or walker, a physical therapist can help you develop strength and use the right technique.

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.

Physical therapists sometimes come to your home to guide your therapy. They also work in:

  • Hospitals
  • Outpatient clinics
  • Sports medicine centers
  • Private medical offices
  • Nursing homes
  • Assisted living homes
  • Rehab centers
  • Offices and work sites
  • Schools or colleges

Some physical therapists offer telehealth, so appointments may be done virtually from your home.

Health insurance providers, including Medicare, will usually pay at least some of the cost of physical therapy if a doctor has determined that you need it to treat a medical condition. Be sure to ask your health insurance provider if you will have to contribute a copay if you see a physical therapist and whether it will only cover a limited number of appointments. If you don’t have health insurance, a physical therapy session may cost $80-$150 or more.

Having physical therapy is not risky if you get treatment from a licensed provider. Any form of medical treatment can have a downside, however. With physical therapy, there’s a modest chance that you might worsen an injury that you’re trying to treat. That’s why it’s important to understand your PT’s instructions before you perform exercises at home.

Physical therapy is a type of treatment that can help you regain normal movement and ease pain if you have been injured, had surgery, or have a medical condition that limits your ability to function. Your doctor may recommend physical therapy as part of treatment for many medical conditions, such as back pain, sports injuries, strokes, Parkinson’s disease, and others. Physical therapists undergo extensive education and training. Some physical therapists specialize in treating specific groups of patients, such as the elderly or people with heart disease.