What Is Physical Therapy?

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 get physical therapy. It can treat a variety of health problems.

What Is a Physical Therapist?

These licensed health professionals get specific graduate training in physical therapy. You may hear them called PTs or physiotherapists.

Some PTs get a master’s degree. Others also have a doctorate in physical therapy. They must pass a national exam to get certified. They’re licensed by the states where they practice.

Physical therapists look at your needs and guide 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 your doctor. But he 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.

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. He’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.

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The PT will give you 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, he’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:

  • Hospitals
  • Outpatient clinics
  • Sports medicine centers
  • Private medical offices
  • Nursing homes
  • Assisted living homes
  • Rehab centers
  • Offices and work sites
  • Schools or colleges
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Ross Brakeville, DPT on July 27, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

American Physical Therapy Association.

Burke Rehabilitation Hospital: “10 Reasons Why Physical Therapy Is Beneficial.”

American College of Rheumatology: “The Role of the Physical Therapist in the Management of Rheumatic Disease.”

Hospital for Special Surgery: “Ask the Expert: When to See a Physical Therapist.”

Rasmussen College: “What Does a Physical Therapy Assistant Do?

Baylor Scott & White Health: “Your First Appointment in Physical Therapy.”

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