Overview of Physical Therapy

Photo of a physical therapist helping a man.
Your physical therapist may work in a variety of different settings.. Andersen Ross/Getty Images

Physical therapy is a healthcare specialty that includes the evaluation, assessment, and treatment of individuals with limitations in functional mobility. Physical therapy services are provided by physical therapists, who are professionals licensed by the state in which they work. Physical therapists are required to have a master's degree or a clinical doctorate degree from an accredited institution and must sit for a licensing exam to practice.

Do I Need Physical Therapy?

If you have an injury or illness that results in physical impairment or loss of function, a physical therapist can help. Physical therapists treat people across the entire lifespan. Many specialize in treating a certain population, like children, the elderly, or athletes. Regardless of age, if you have impaired mobility, a physical therapy evaluation may be warranted to offer treatment and a strategy to improve function.

Some common problems that physical therapists evaluate and treat include:

Physical therapists can treat many other problems besides the ones listed. In general, any problem that causes pain and limits normal movement or function can be evaluated and treated by your physical therapist. Be sure to speak with your doctor if you feel you may need physical therapy.

Where Do Physical Therapists Work?

Physical therapists work in a variety of different settings. These may include:

Anywhere you may encounter a person who may be having difficulty with normal mobility is where you may find a physical therapist.

What Will Happen During Physical Therapy?

Physical therapists use many different techniques to help you decrease pain, decrease stiffness, improve motion and strength, and improve mobility. Physical agents, such as heat, ice, ultrasound, or electrical stimulation may be used. Manual techniques are often used to help improve mobility.

Therapeutic exercise is often used by physical therapists to help people gain range of motion, increase strength, and improve function. Patient education about a condition or illness is paramount to the practice of physical therapy, and therapists may use charts, models, and diagrams to help you understand your diagnosis and prognosis.

How Can You Prepare for Physical Therapy?

When you are preparing for physical therapy, there are a few things you can do to ensure you have a positive experience. First, ask questions before choosing a physical therapist. Some PTs are clinical specialists; finding one who specializes in treating your specific problem can help. You should ask about insurance coverage, a cancellation or no show policy, and what you should wear to your PT appointment.

You physical therapist should work with you to set specific goals, so be prepared to tell you physical therapist exactly what you hope to achieve durign therapy. If you don't understand a specific treatment that is occurring during your PT sessions, you should ask. Your relationship with your physical therapist should feel like a therapeutic alliance - both of you working together to achieve specific goals.

Where Will I Get My Physical Therapy?

Many people think of hospitals as the primary place where physical therapists practice, but therapists also work in a variety of other settings. If you are unable to leave your home due to illness or injury, a physical therapist can come to your house to provide home care. There, you can engage in specific exercises to help improve mobility and restore normal function.

When an infant needs therapy, many state laws require that the child receive services in the setting that is most familiar to the child, either at home or in daycare. School-age children who have a movement impairment often receive physical therapy in school.

Physical therapists also practice in outpatient clinics, either privately owned, or owned and operated by large corporate entities, such as hospitals. Still other therapists work in nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

When an injury occurs that limits your ability to move about safely or normally, a referral to a physical therapist may be made. Physical therapists work closely with patients, doctors, and family members to ensure safe and rapid return to maximal function.

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