Physical Therapy After Surgery

Getting Better When Surgery Alone Isn't Enough

elbow injury bandage physical therapy surgery
Full Range of Motion After Surgery May Require PT.

What is Physical Therapy?

Physical therapy is the treatment of disability, pain or malfunction with rehabilitative exercise, heat, hydrotherapy, stretching and other activities in order to regain or improve physical function.  Physical therapy is often done before surgery, to determine if surgery can be avoided, and after surgery, to help regain as much function as possible. 

What is the Difference Between Physiotherapy and Physical Therapy?


  The terms are synonyms and mean exactly the same thing in the United States.  Physical Therapy is the more commonly used term in the United States, while other European countries and Australia use the term physiotherapy.  You may also hear physical therapists referred to as physiotherapists.  In other countries there may be differences between the education of the two, but they are the same thing within the United States.

What is a Physical Therapist

A physical therapist is an individual with at least a four year degree (usually a master’s degree) who directs the care of a patient in need of physical rehabilitation.  Physical therapists are required to pass a board examination prior to practicing with patients.  

A physical therapist may specialize in a specific area of interest.  The vast majority of physical therapists who specialize elect a specialty in orthopedics, but there are eight specialties recognized by the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties.

Physical Therapy Specialties:  

  • Cardiovascular and Pulmonary: rehabilitation of the heart and/or lungs
  • Clinical Electrophysiology: the use of electrotherapy to aid healing including wound management
  • Geriatric: care of the older adult
  • Integumentary: skin related issues
  • Neurological: specializing in rehabilitation of the brain and nervous system
  • Orthopedic: muscular and skeletal issues
  • Palliative: end of life care seeking to reduce pain
  • Pediatric: rehabilitation for patients under the age of 18
  • Sports: rehabilitation for athletes and injuries that occurred during athletic activity
  • Women’s Health:  physical therapy for adult women

What is a Physical Therapist Assistant?

A Physical Therapist Assistant, or PTA, has at least an associate’s degree level education and carries out the plan of the physical therapist to best help the patient.  The term physical therapist assistant is not synonym for physical therapy aide or physical therapy technician.  Aides and technicians receive on the job training and are not required to have formal education in physical therapy.  

Why is Physical Therapy Necessary After Surgery?

For many patients, having surgery is not enough.  In order to maximize function and minimize disability, rehabilitation is necessary.  The type of physical therapy necessary will vary from patient to patient, and from surgery to surgery.

  For example, a person who has heart bypass surgery (CABG) will often require cardiac rehabilitation in order to improve their ability to tolerate exercise.  A woman who has breast cancer and has to have a mastectomy and lymph nodes under the arm removed may need physical therapy in order to regain full movement and strength in the affected arm.

How Long Will I Be in Physical Therapy?

The amount of physical therapy needed will vary from individual to individual, even if they have the same surgical procedure.   As a general rule, the healthier, younger and more active a person was prior to surgery, the faster the recovery.  Non-smokers will recover faster than smokers, and individuals with no chronic conditions (high blood pressure, diabetes, etc) will likely return to their normal level of activity fast than those with underlying health issues.

Physical therapy can improve your stamina, flexibility and strength and can also decrease your pain.  For some patients, such as patients having joint replacement procedures, neglecting physical therapy after surgery can seriously diminish the long term success of surgery.

How Do I Choose a Physical Therapist?

Your surgeon will likely have a physical therapist that they recommend.  This physical therapist is most likely very familiar with the surgeon’s preferences for post-surgery rehabilitation, and may work closely with the surgeon.  

You are not obligated to use the physical therapist that the surgeon recommends. You can obtain a list of physical therapists that accept your insurance from your insurance company, or you can inquire amongst family and friends to see who they would recommend.  


Role of Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA). APTA.  Accessed February, 2015.

Continue Reading