What to Know About Physical Therapy

If you're recovering from an injury, living with a chronic illness, or experiencing pains from aging, you may be referred to a physical therapist. These professionals are movement experts who help people of all ages improve their quality of life through exercise, hands-on care, and education.

Many people get physical therapy to treat a specific pain or condition, but physical therapy doesn't have to revolve around a problem. You can also seek out physical therapy as part of a general wellness plan.

Physical therapy is designed to educate you on exercises that can improve your movement, strength, flexibility, and balance. These techniques can be used to better your fitness and to prevent future issues or injuries.

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Why Would You Need Physical Therapy?

People who have experienced an injury, surgery, or live with a chronic condition often use physical therapy as part of their overall care plan.

A physical therapist can teach you methods to move your body in a safe and effective way with minimal pain as you recover. These exercises are also meant to improve your strength, range of motion, flexibility, and balance.

Physical therapy can be beneficial in a wide range of scenarios. You might use physical therapy to:

  • Improve mobility: Stretching and strengthening exercises are used to improve your ability to move, particularly for daily activities like going up and down stairs. This may be helpful for people who are managing age-related mobility issues or have a chronic condition like arthritis.
  • Address nerve-related conditions: For people who have Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, or are recovering from a stroke, physical therapy can be used to help strengthen weakened parts of the body and improve posture and balance.
  • Manage pain: Physical therapy can help ease pain, and it may help reduce or eliminate the use of opioids for pain relief. One study found that early physical therapy was associated with about a 10% reduction in subsequent opioid use.
  • Recover from a sports injury: A physical therapist can design a recovery program to ensure your safe return to a sport. They can treat a wide range of injuries including groin pulls, shin splints, shoulder injuries, sprained ankles, knee injuries, and tendinitis.
  • Manage a health condition: In addition to treating conditions like arthritis and sports injuries, some physical therapists are able to offer more specialized treatments for problems like urinary incontinence, pelvic floor issues, fibromyalgia, or lymphedema.
  • Recover from surgery: Research has shown physical therapy can help speed up recovery and improve functional outcomes in people who have had surgery.

What Can You Expect at Physical Therapy?

During your initial visit, your physical therapist will ask questions about your reason for physical therapy. Be prepared to talk about your symptoms, medical history, and any medications you're taking. If you're recovering from an injury or surgery, make sure to bring any related lab tests or imaging reports with you.

The physical therapist will have you perform a few light exercises at the first visit so they can observe your movement. Dress in comfortable, stretchy clothing that allows for activity.

Your physical therapist will evaluate movement markers like your strength, flexibility, balance, coordination, and posture. They may also look at your walk, body mechanics (how you sit, stand, bend), and functional abilities like standing from a chair or getting up after lying down.

After your initial examination, your physical therapist will develop a treatment plan based on your needs. Together, you will discuss the goals of your treatment and how long treatment may last.

Your treatment will likely include a combination of exercise and hands-on therapy. For example, the physical therapist may perform guided, passive movements by moving your limbs for you or apply pressure to the problem area using massage. In some cases, they may use additional therapies involving heat, cold, or electrical currents.

Typically, your physical therapist will prescribe a set of exercises and movements that need to be done consistently at home. They may also suggest certain lifestyle modifications or movement restrictions to follow during treatment, such as avoiding lifting heavy weights.

Where Can You Do Physical Therapy?

Physical therapists work in a range of healthcare settings. Where your physical therapy takes place will depend on where your healthcare provider refers you for treatment. Some potential locations where physical therapy may take place include:

  • Hospitals
  • Skilled nursing facilities and hospices
  • Rehabilitation facilities
  • Sports and fitness settings
  • Occupational settings
  • Outpatient clinics
  • At your home or school
  • Government agencies
  • Research centers

How Long Does Physical Therapy Last?

How long your physical therapy lasts will depend on the condition being treated as well as your individual healing rate. Your physical therapist will tailor your program to your individual needs.

As you complete your sessions, your physical therapist will monitor your progress and determine whether you are making improvements in your range of motion, function, and strength.

Your physical therapist may recommend setting goals that you would like to achieve rather than setting a date when you want treatment to end.

To stay on track with your physical therapy program, it's important to follow your at-home exercises and keep consistent appointments during treatment. In some cases, your physical therapist may instruct you to continue with at-home exercises even after your visits with them have ended.

What Is the Cost of Physical Therapy?

The cost of your physical therapy will depend on the physical therapist provider and your insurance. Depending on your individual insurance plan, you may need to pay a co-pay or a percentage of the overall cost after you have met your deductible (the amount you pay for health services before your insurance will pay).

For instance, if you have Medicare and have met your deductible, you will likely pay 20% of the Medicare-approved amount each visit. To find out what your physical therapy might cost, check with your insurance provider.

Your insurance may only cover physical therapy treatment for a certain amount of time or number of visits. If this is the case, your physical therapist can work with you to create a treatment plan that fits in that time frame.

Using physical therapy as an early treatment for injury, pain, or surgery recovery may reduce other healthcare-related costs. Research shows that delaying physical therapy can actually increase your costs. In some cases, physical therapy is more cost-effective than other approaches and can result in fewer physician visits.

A Quick Review

Physical therapy is a combination of exercise, hands-on care, and education used to restore healthy movement and ease pain. Many people receive physical therapy to treat injuries, disabilities, or other health conditions. However, you can also use physical therapy as a wellness practice to improve functional movement and prevent injuries.

Your physical therapist will create a personalized treatment plan for your individual needs. Following your physical therapist's instructions for at-home exercises and keeping up with consistent appointments will make your treatment quicker and more effective.

Physical therapists work in a range of healthcare settings including hospitals, rehabilitation clinics, and schools. Talk to your insurance provider to determine the cost of your physical therapy.

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9 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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