Physical therapy is an important type of care that guides patients to improve mobility and movement, reduce pain, and increase functioning. Patients who need physical therapy include adults or children with physical disabilities, patients recovering from a stroke or heart attack, athletes recovering from injuries, and elderly patients recovering from accidents or trying to maintain mobility and independence.

While there are many more reasons to turn to physical therapy, the main, underlying goals are improving mobility, reducing pain, and increasing function and independence. Physical therapists are highly-trained and licensed health professionals who have the specific skills and tools needed to help patients meet these goals.

What is Physical Therapy?

Physical therapy is a type of health care that helps patients develop, maintain, or recover maximum mobility and function while minimizing pain. The various underlying reasons a person may need physical therapy are numerous, from recovering from a stroke to learning how to move better with a permanent disability. The specific goals of each patient also vary, but the main purpose is the same for everyone: to improve movement, physical functioning, and pain.

The Role of a Physical Therapist

A physical therapist is a health care professional who holds a minimum of a master’s degree and who is specially trained in physical therapy and licensed by the state in which they practice. Patients may go to a physical therapist through the referral of a physician but often go without such a recommendation. Physical therapists provide health care services that meet the goals of each individual patient for mobility, movement, function, and pain relief. The specific roles of a physical therapist include:

  • Examining and assessing patients.
  • Observing patients and listening to their needs, complaints, and goals.
  • Using the examination, observation, and individual goals to determine the degree and type of services each patient needs.
  • Developing a plan to meet the patient’s goals.
  • Implementing the plan and assess regularly to determine progress.
  • Changing the treatment plan as needed.
  • Consulting with physicians and other health professionals to best help patients.
  • Making recommendations to patients for self-care at home.

Who Needs Physical Therapy?

Anyone at any point in their lives may need this kind of care. People of all ages and abilities may need physical therapy for a variety of reasons. Disabled children and adults can use physical therapy to improve mobility, function, and independence. Older adults can benefit from physical therapy to manage age-related mobility issues and pain. Physical therapy helps patients recover from injuries, surgery, and illness. They can also help patients manage chronic pain.

Some patients may need or can benefit even more from a physical therapy specialist. This is a professional who has received additional training and education for specialty areas of physical therapy: pediatric, geriatric, neurological, sports, women’s health, postpartum or prenatal, cardiovascular, orthopedics, and electrotherapy.

Benefits of Physical Therapy

The benefits that a patient can get from physical therapy depend on the needs and goals of each individual. However there are some common benefits that most patients receiving this kind of care can expect to see. For instance, physical therapy can improve movement and help a person move better and with less pain. With greater mobility often comes greater independence and a reduced need to rely on others for assistance.

Physical therapy can also benefit patients by eliminating or postponing the need for riskier interventions, like surgery or prescription painkillers. Physical therapy improves overall quality of life and helps patients take greater control over their own recovery, wellness, and health by allowing them to be active participants, both in sessions and with what they learn in sessions and use at home.

Patients getting physical therapy will also have better overall fitness, including greater muscle strength, balance, and posture. Physical therapy can even help patients manage or recover from chronic illnesses, like diabetes or heart disease. For patients who have been injured or who have been ill or had surgery, physical therapy helps them recover more quickly and fully.

What Happens During a Physical Therapy Session?

The first session with a physical therapist should include a thorough evaluation to determine the patient’s needs and to develop a plan for therapy. Subsequent sessions involve guided exercises, use of equipment and other strategies that are part of the treatment plan, along with regular evaluations to ensure the patients are making progress toward their goals.

There are many possible exercises and tools that physical therapists use with patients. These include manipulating and passively moving the body and joints, massaging specific muscles, and guiding patients through exercises to strengthen muscles and to maximize good form. The therapist may use ultrasound or electrotherapy tools, heat and ice, and other strategies to supplement treatment. Therapists also help patients use adaptive and assistive devices, like walkers or wheelchairs, and teach patients how to do exercises at home.

Where Physical Therapy is Provided

There are many places in which a patient may work with a physical therapist, including hospitals and clinics, large medical centers, and even gyms and fitness centers. Many physical therapists work in private practice, either as individuals in their own offices or as part of a large team in a physical therapy or rehabilitation clinic. They often work alongside physicians, occupational therapists, physical trainers, chiropractors, massage therapists, and other health care professionals.

How to Choose a Physical Therapist

Physical therapy can be beneficial to a range of patients with all kinds of health and wellness needs, but it is important to choose a professional who will provide quality care. The first things to look for in a potential physical therapist are licensing and credentials. Make sure the therapist you choose is licensed through the state and is a member of a professional organization like the American Physical Therapy Association.

Also look for the experience and expertise a therapist has. If you need a specialist, make sure you choose someone with the right training, such as working with children if your child needs physical therapy. You may also want to ask for references before choosing a therapist. This can give you a good idea of how satisfied previous patients were with the care they received. Finally, check on costs and type of insurance accepted.

Working with a physical therapist can provide many benefits from managing pain to increasing function and independence. Many people in different situations can benefit from the expertise and guidance of a physical therapist, but getting the best care depends on choosing a good therapist, communicating needs and goals, and working hard during and outside of sessions to make improvements.