When your body isn’t moving as it should, you are recovering from an injury or shooting pains interrupt your daily life, your health care provider may prescribe physical therapy.
Physical therapy (PT) is a great way to not only increase mobility and reduce pain but is also the path to follow if you want to stay strong, empowered and mobile in the long term. Physical therapists use a combination of exercise, manual therapy techniques and patient education.
“Physical therapists are known to be movement specialists and can address a wide range of injuries and conditions in many areas of medicine, including orthopedics, sports medicine, pediatrics, women’s and men’s health and many others,” said Jennifer Glasgow, a physical therapist with Banner Health. “We can educate and instruct patients to get back to functional activities. We also listen and validate their feelings during the healing process.”
You can find physical therapy and licensed physical therapists in a range of health care settings, including independent or freestanding clinics, hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, acute care centers, home health, schools and sports and fitness settings.
There are several ways physical therapy can change and improve your life. To understand why you might need physical therapy, Glasgow shares the importance of physical therapy and how it can help people of all ages.
What conditions does physical therapy treat?
Physical therapists can provide supplemental treatment for a wide variety of medical conditions.
“Anyone who has suffered an injury or has some type of physical disability or limitation can benefit from physical therapy,” Glasgow said. “We have such a wide range of knowledge that we can help with preventive care, help change movement patterns at any age and improve patient activity tolerance and balance.”
Physical therapists may not directly and independently treat medical conditions, but they typically work collaboratively with health care providers to optimize recovery and movement and can help promote healthy aging in older adults.
Here are some conditions that could benefit from physical therapy:
- Sports-related injuries: Overuse injuries, stress fractures, sprains and tears
- Chronic pain in your neck and back
- Balance issues
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Pelvic floor dysfunction or urinary incontinence
- Pediatric conditions: Cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy
What are the benefits of physical therapy?
Physical therapy offers many benefits, including pain management, injury prevention, improved mobility and better management of health conditions.
Depending on the reason for treatment, the benefits of physical therapy may include the following:
- Reduce or eliminate pain. Whether your pain stems from an injury or a disease like arthritis or fibromyalgia, a physical therapist can help with pain management.
- Enhance sports performance. Physical therapy isn’t just for treating injuries. Professional and recreational athletes often work with physical therapists to improve their athletic performance.
- Prevent injury (and surgery). Physical therapy can be an excellent prevention tool to help avoid unnecessary aches, pains and muscle-related injuries. It can even potentially allow you to avoid surgery.
- Shorten post-surgery recovery. Physical therapy can help you improve your range of motion, reduce pain and prevent scar tissue buildup.
- Improve mobility. If you have trouble walking, standing or moving, physical therapy can help improve mobility with passive and active treatments.
- Improve balance and prevent falls. Physical therapy exercises can improve your balance in real-life situations to lower your risk of falling. Physical therapists also help with assistive devices to help with safer movement.
- Recover from a stroke. Physical therapy can help strengthen muscles and weakened body parts and recover gait and balance.
- Manage heart and lung disease. Cardiovascular rehabilitation often includes physical therapy. A physical therapist can teach you breathing, strengthening and conditioning exercises.
How is physical therapy performed?
Physical therapy uses a variety of movement exercises and stretches depending on the part of the body and the condition being treated. It may involve equipment like a stationary bicycle or treadmill and strengthening exercises with weights or bands. Physical therapists may use a hands-on technique called manual therapy as well.
“This technique uses a passive range of motion, joint mobilization or soft tissue mobilization to help regain movement, activate muscles and reduce inflammation,” Glasgow said.
What should I expect from physical therapy?
Most treatment plans last four to 12 weeks, but it depends on the severity of your injury and whether you follow your treatment plan outside of the clinic (i.e., do your exercise homework!).
Typically, there are four stages to a typical physical therapy treatment plan: evaluation, progression, discharge and maintenance.
On your first visit, your physical therapist will perform an assessment. They may review your medical history with you, as well as have you bend, reach, walk or balance.
“The physical therapist will assess movement patterns, strength and any other deficits that may contribute to your issue,” Glasgow said. “They’ll focus on a series of questions to help guide the treatment plan.”
After your assessment, your physical therapist will create a treatment plan. Then, they’ll walk you through specific stretches and exercises you’ll perform during daily therapy sessions and some to perform at home.
This stage is where most of your time is spent with your therapist and involves one-on-one sessions.
“When you come into the clinic, you can expect to be asked how exercises are going, how you are feeling, and if you have had any changes since your last visit,” Glasgow said.
After a warm-up, your therapists will apply manual techniques and walk you through exercises that focus on strengthening, postural correction, stabilization training and maybe some stretching for flexibility. They will also tell you why you are doing specific exercises.
Once you have completed those exercises for the day, you may or may not get heat or ice.
In most cases, discharge planning occurs when you have achieved your goals, and you can continue your return to independence or your pre-injury activity level without additional therapy visits.
Your physical therapist may have you continue home exercises to help you maintain good function.
Your physical therapy treatment should never end. You should incorporate your physical therapy routine into your daily life at home and include occasional checkups to ensure your body operates as it should.
Physical therapy can improve quality of life for people of all ages and with various injuries, disabilities or health conditions.
In most cases, you don’t need your health care provider’s referral for an evaluation with a physical therapist.
Schedule an appointment with a physical therapist near you.