Physical therapy: What you need to know

Physical therapy: What you need to know

Trained professionals in physical therapy assess and treat abnormal physical function relating, for example, to an injury , disability, disease or condition.

A physical therapist is a trained and licensed medical professional with experience in diagnosing physical abnormalities, restoring physical function and mobility, maintaining physical function and promoting physical activity and proper function, according to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA).

Licensed physical therapists can be found in a number of healthcare settings including outpatient offices, private practices, hospitals, rehab centers , nursing homes, home health , sports and fitness settings , schools, hospices, workplaces, government agencies, and research facilities.

What to expect

Physical therapy can help people of all ages with a range of conditions.
Physical therapy can help people of all ages with a range of conditions.

A physical therapy assists with patient treatment in all aspects of healing, from initial diagnosis to restorative and preventive recovery stages. Physical therapy can be an option in its own right, or it can support other treatments.

Some patients are referred by their doctor to a physical therapist but others themselves are seeking therapy.

Whichever way a patient come to a physical therapist, they can expect to:

  • Undergo a physical exam and evaluation, including a health history and certain testing procedures, including evaluation of posture, movement and flexibility, and of muscle and joint motion and performance
  • Receive a clinical diagnosis, prognosis, plan of care and short and long term goals
  • Receive physical therapy treatment and intervention based on the therapist’s evaluation and diagnosis
  • Receive self-management recommendations

Patients also participate in activities that they can perform at home with a physical therapist, to help them function more effectively.

Common conditions

Depending on their speciality, physical therapists can treat a wide variety of medical conditions.

Some conditions which can benefit from treatment of this type are:

  • Cardiopulmonary conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cystic fibrosis (CF) and post-myocardial infarction (MI)
  • Hand therapy for conditions such as carpal tunnel syndrome and trigger finger
  • Musculoskeletal dysfunction such as back pain, rotator cuff tears, and temporomandibular joint disorders (TMJ)
  • Neurological conditions such as stroke, spinal cord injuries, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, vestibular dysfunction, and traumatic brain injuries
  • Pediatric conditions such as developmental delays, cerebral palsy, and muscular dystrophy
  • Sports-related injuries, such as concussion and tennis elbow
  • Women’s health and pelvic floor dysfunction, such as urinary incontinence and lymphedema

Other cases that may benefit include burns, wound care, and diabetic ulcers.

Benefits of physical therapy

Depending on the reason for treatment, the benefits of physical therapy include:

  • Pain management with reduced need for opioids
  • Avoiding surgery
  • Improved mobility and movement
  • Recovery from injury or trauma
  • Recovery from stroke or paralysis
  • Fall prevention
  • Improved balance
  • Management of age-related medical problems

A sports therapist can help an athlete maximize their performance through strengthening particular body parts and using muscles in new ways.

A health care professional or physical therapist may educate individuals about the particular benefits of their personal medical history and their recovery needs.


Physical therapy can help a patient regain movement or strength after an injury or illness.
Physical therapy can help a patient regain movement or strength after an injury or illness.

Like in every medical procedure, various therapies can be used to treat a variety of conditions.

Physical orthopedic therapy treat musculoskeletal injuries that include muscles , bones, ligaments, fascias, and tendons. It is ideal for medical conditions like fractures, sprains, tendonitis, bursitis, chronic medical issues and major surgery rehabilitation or recovery. Patients may undergo joint mobilization treatment, manual therapy, strength training, mobility training, and other modalities.

Geriatric physical therapy may help elderly patients overcome problems that impair their mobility and physical function, including arthritis, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s disease, replacement of hip and knee, coordination disorders, and incontinence; A form of therapy is aimed at improving mobility, reducing discomfort and increasing physical health.

Neurological physical therapy can help people with neurological disorders and conditions including Alzheimer’s disease, brain injury, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis , Parkinson ‘s disease, spinal cord injury and stroke. Treatment may aim to improve the responsiveness of the limbs, treat paralysis and reverse muscle strength by reducing muscle atrophy.

Cardiovascular and pulmonary rehabilitation some cardiopulmonary problems and surgical procedures may help people affected. Treatment will improve strength and physical endurance.

Pediatric physical therapy seeks to diagnose , treat, and handle disorders affecting babies, teenagers, and adolescents, including delays in growth, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, torticollis, and other conditions affecting the musculoskeletal system;

Wound care therapy can help ensure that a healing wound receives sufficient oxygen and blood to improve circulation. Physical therapy can include physical therapy, electrical stimulation, compression therapy, and care for wounds.

Vestibular therapy aims at treating problems of balance that may arise from conditions in the inner ear. Vestibular physical therapy involves a variety of exercises and manual procedures which can help patients recover natural balance and coordination.

Decongestive therapy can help drain the accumulated fluid in patients with lymphedema and other fluid-accumulating conditions.

Rehabilitation of a pelvic floor may help relieve urinary or fecal incontinence, urinary pressure and pelvic pain in men and women as a result of injury or surgery, or due to certain conditions.

Apart from physical manipulation, physical therapy treatment may involve:

  • Ultrasound, to promote blood flow and healing by heating the tendons, muscles, and tissues
  • Phonophoresis, which uses ultrasound to deliver certain medications such as topical steroids. This can decrease the presence of inflammation
  • Electrical stimulation, or E-stim, which uses topical electrodes on the skin to reduce pain and increase functional capabilities. One type of E-stim is transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). At times, anti-inflammatory medications are used with certain E-stim modalities and is referred to as iontophoresis
  • Heat, moist heat and cold therapy
  • Light therapy, in which special lights and lasers are used to treat certain medical conditions

The physical therapist should prescribe the treatment which is most appropriate.

Finding a physical therapist

Finding an acceptable physical therapist may include a variety of factors including approval of insurance, specialty and reason for treatment, and geographic location.

Insurance companies often have lists of locations for physical therapy which participate in specific health plans. Other healthcare providers may have a list of therapists they recommend in the area.

Another way to find a physical therapist is to look online or access the APTA Find a PT web-based tool.

Training to be a physical therapist

Physiotherapists study areas such as biology , anatomy, cellular histology, physiology, exercise physiology, biomechanics, kinesiology, neuroscience, pharmacology, pathology, behavioral sciences, cardiovascular and pulmonary studies, endocrine and metabolic studies, and musculoskeletal studies over several years of training.

Physical therapists can specialize in fields such as:

  • Cardiovascular and pulmonary health
  • Clinical electrophysiology
  • Health for older people
  • Neurology, orthopedics, pediatrics, sports physical therapy, and women’s health.

This type of treatment does not only benefit the physical body according to the World Confederation for Physical Therapy.


“Is concerned with identifying and maximizing quality of life and movement potential within the spheres of promotion, prevention, treatment/intervention, habilitation and rehabilitation. This encompasses physical, psychological, emotional, and social wellbeing.”

Patients should talk to their health care provider or physical therapist for more information about the benefits of physical therapy, and how it can help.For more information on the benefits of physical therapy and how it may help, patients should speak with their healthcare provider or a physical therapist.