What Is Physical Therapy?

Physical therapy helps people get back full strength and movement in key parts of the body after an illness or injury. Physical therapy doesn't just help a person rebuild strength and range of motion, though — it also can help someone manage pain, whether that pain is caused by bad posture, an injury, or a disease like arthritis. When done properly and consistently, physical therapy can help prevent permanent damage and recurring problems.

Most physical therapy uses a combination of techniques to relieve pain and boost coordination, strength, endurance, flexibility, and range of motion. Physical therapists (PTs) often ask patients to use exercise equipment like bikes and treadmills.

In addition to exercising the affected area, a PT also may treat it with heat or cold, electrical stimulation, ultrasound, massage, and even aquatic therapy (exercise in a swimming pool). In many cases, PTs will do soft tissue massage on injured areas and oversee the patient during stretching routines.

Physical therapists usually give their patients exercises to do at home. These at-home exercises work with the treatments and exercises done in the PT's office to help a person heal better, faster, and safely.

What to Look for in a Physical Therapist

Like doctors, some physical therapists can specialize in different areas: A particular therapist might work mostly with sports injuries, for example. Others may be experts in head injuries or in caring for wound and muscle damage in people with burns or skin injuries. Some PTs focus specifically on athletes, children, babies, the elderly, or the very ill.

Your doctor may recommend the right PT for you — but you also need to be sure you feel comfortable with that PT. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Some good ones are:

  • How much experience do you have treating people with my condition?
  • How will you decide which treatment program I need?
  • What equipment will you use to treat my condition? (This prepares you for when the PT suggests a particular piece of equipment.)
  • How long will each treatment session last?
  • How long do you think I will need to come for treatment?

If you don't feel comfortable (for example, the PT doesn't answer your questions or can't explain your routine in a way that you understand), let your doctor know and ask for another recommendation. You also can ask your medical insurance provider or check out the American Physical Therapy Association's website.

The First Visit

Many (but not all) states require a referral from your doctor before you can be evaluated and treated by a PT. If you're under the age of 18 and going to a hospital or clinic, it's a good idea to take a parent or guardian with you the first time. Not only will you have support and someone to talk to about the experience, but you'll also have someone to help with your exercises at home — and maybe even give you a gentle nudge when you're feeling unmotivated!

Most likely you'll see a PT in a clinic or office. But some PTs work in schools, helping students with injuries, disabilities, or chronic (long-lasting) conditions. When you go to your physical therapy appointments, try to wear loose-fitting clothing and sneakers so your PT can accurately measure your strength and range of motion. If you have a knee problem, it's helpful to wear shorts to your therapy visit.

During your first visit, the PT will evaluate your needs and may ask questions about how you're feeling, if you have any pain, and where that pain falls on a scale of 0 to 10. It's important to be honest with your PT, so he or she can treat your condition properly.

Using the results of the exam and your doctor's recommendations, the PT will design a treatment plan. Many times, your PT will start treatment during the first visit — including giving you exercises to do at home.

The PT will probably ask you to go through these at-home exercises while you're there to make sure you know how to do them on your own. Many PTs give their patients a piece of paper with the exercises written on them as a reminder of what to do and in which order (if any). Be sure to follow the plan exactly — most of the benefit of PT comes from the routines a person does at home.

Don't be afraid to ask for another explanation if you don't completely understand an exercise that you'll be doing at home. It's easy to feel confused or overwhelmed with information during a first treatment session — lots of people (adults included) feel this way.

Talk with the PT about how the exercises should feel when you do them — for example, if you're supposed to feel any pain or unusual sensations, and whether you need to stop if you do.

Some people like to keep track of their progress during PT by taking notes on how often they do the exercises, how they feel, and how sensations change — this will help you and your PT monitor your treatment.

Ongoing Visits

Physical therapy sessions typically last 30–60 minutes each, from one to many times a week, depending on why a person is receiving therapy. As you make progress, your visits may change in length and frequency. You'll learn new techniques to help continue your healing.

In big offices, you may meet with different PTs during the course of your treatment. Don't worry if you see a new face — but make sure each PT working with you knows your condition, and that you're comfortable asking questions of each therapist. Remember: If you don't like the treatment, or something feels wrong, speak up.

Although the long-term goal is pain relief and recovery, physical therapy itself won't always feel good. Depending on your injury, you may feel uncomfortable or not used to moving the area. It's important to stick to the routine — and to breathe, be kind to yourself, and ask your PT for other hints on getting through. It's also important not to put yourself through too much or to overdo it.

If you feel pain, make sure to talk to your PT about it. "No pain, no gain" is no way to approach physical therapy. Pain is a warning signal, and by pushing yourself through too much pain, you can do more damage.

Other Things to Keep in Mind

Following a few simple steps can help you make your PT treatment a success:

  • Stick to the plan. It's important to follow the PT's instructions. Do your exercises at home in the number, order, and frequency noted. Don't skip any, and don't do extra exercises — following the directions will help you heal faster and get moving again. But if a specific exercise is making you feel worse, put it on hold and talk with your physical therapist.
  • Know your body. It helps to know what's going on and why. Ask questions and pay attention when the PT explains the injury and the treatment. You'll probably be amazed by the way your body heals itself. And you'll want to know how the affected area functions so you can spot problems or avoid further injury in the future.
  • Talk to your PT if you have problems. If things hurt, if you have questions, or if you're not making progress the way you thought you would: ask. The PT is there to help you.
  • Celebrate your successes. When you follow the plan, you should start to see a difference in a few weeks or months. Bouncing back from more serious surgeries may take many months or a year, but there will be milestones along the way. Take a moment to appreciate the difference from where you started! Sometimes, recovery can feel frustrating and slow — but it helps to stop and enjoy the successes, no matter how small they may seem.
Back to Articles

Related Articles

Dealing With Sports Injuries

You practiced hard and made sure you wore protective gear, but you still got hurt. Read this article to find out how to take care of sports injuries - and how to avoid getting them.

Read More

Sports Physicals

Just as professional sports stars need medical care to keep them playing their best, so do student athletes. That's why it's important to get a sports physical.

Read More

Strength Training

Is working out with weights safe for teens? The best way to build muscle tone and definition is to combine aerobic and flexibility exercises with the right kind of strength training.

Read More

Knee Injuries

Healthy knees are needed for many activities and sports and getting hurt can mean some time sitting on the sidelines.

Read More

Sports and Exercise Safety

Playing hard doesn't have to mean getting hurt. The best way to ensure a long and injury-free athletic career is to play it safe from the start. Find out how.

Read More

Why Exercise Is Wise

Getting the right amount of exercise can rev up your energy levels and even help you to feel better emotionally. Find out why.

Read More

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2021 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.