Reasons to Choose Physical Therapy First

Having Difficulty with Mobility? Choose PT First

Photo of PT working with woman's ankle.
Visiting a physical therapist first is a safe way to get moving again after injury or illness. BraunS/Getty Images

Physical therapists are healthcare professionals who help people move better and feel better after injury or illness. They work in hospitals, outpatient clinics, schools, and nursing homes. A PT may also come to your house to help you restore functional mobility if you are homebound.

Historically, patients would gain access to a physical therapist once a doctor has prescribed it. If you had an illness or injury, you would go to your doctor, and he or she would make a determination if physical therapy would be of benefit for you.

More recently, patients have been enjoying direct access to physical therapy. This allows you to seek out and work with a physical therapist whenever you are having difficulty with mobility. You may also work with a physical therapist if you are working to prevent problems with functional mobility.

Direct access allows you to choose physical therapy first whenever a mobility issue arises. So why should you choose to visit a physical therapist first whenever a problem arises? Is it safe to go to PT first?

Why Choose PT First?

If you are having pain, difficulty moving, or if you wish to work to prevent movement problems, you should visit a physical therapist.

  1. Starting with a physical therapist is safe. When pain or limited mobility arises, your PT can safely assess your condition and offer you treatments to get moving again. Most importantly, your physical therapist is trained to recognize when your condition requires a higher level of care or follow up. He or she can direct you to the best care possible.
  1. Starting PT first saves money. Choosing to visit a physical therapist first when pain or difficulty moving arises can potentially save money. In fact, a recent study found that patients with back pain who started PT within 2 weeks of onset of their symptoms saved over $2700 in healthcare dollars. Those patients who had rapid access to therapy required fewer diagnostic studies and less invasive medical procedures like injections or surgery.
  1. Visiting a physical therapist first can offer you rapid relief of pain. Many conditions, like shoulder pain or neck pain, resolve on their own with no treatment. Often, this takes weeks or months. Your physical therapist can help find the right treatment for your condition so you can quickly get back to normal pain-free mobility in just a few days. Visiting a doctor may delay your care, as you may be referred on to a specialist and sent for (often unnecessary) diagnostic studies. Physical therapy first allows you to quickly get started on treatment.
  2. Your physical therapist can give you strategies to self-manage your condition. One of the most important components of a sound rehab program is therapeutic exercise and the home exercise program. Your PT can show you what to do to self-manage your condition, giving you control over your pain and strategies to take care of future episodes of pain or motion loss.
  3. Physical therapy has no dangerous side effects. If you develop knee pain and go to your doctor, you may be given medication that could have dangerous side effects. Some medicine offered by healthcare practitioners may be habit forming or cause unwanted side effects. Your physical therapist can offer you treatment with very few side effects. The most uncomfortable side effect of PT: delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS. (This resolves on its own in 24 to 48 hours.)

    Is Attending Physical Therapy before Visiting My Doctor Safe?

    Many people feel that visiting a doctor first when a problem arises is necessary, and going to PT first may be dangerous. What if something is seriously wrong?

    First, research shows that direct access and early access to physical therapy is a safe way to manage many musculoskeletal conditions. People can attend PT with very little danger.

    Your physical therapist is trained to recognize serious medical conditions, and your PT can refer you to the correct medical professional so you can get the best treatment for your problem.

    If you are dealing with pain or limited mobility, or if you want to find ways to prevent problems with mobility, visiting a physical therapist is a good idea. Starting PT early can be your key to having a successful outcome with your condition. Attending physical therapy first is a great way to quickly and safely return to your previous level of function.

    Sources: Moore, JH, et al. Risk Determination for Patients With Direct Access to Physical Therapy in Military Health Care Facilities. JOSPT. 35(10) October 2005.
    Fritz, J, et al. Primary Care Referral of Patients With Low Back Pain to Physical Therapy: Impact on Future Health Care Utilization and Costs. Spine. 37(25) 2012.

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