How to Prepare for Your First Physical Therapy Appointment

What goes on during your initial PT evaluation?

A man working with his physical therapist.
Your physical therapist can help you move better and feel better. Photo: Getty Images

If you develop an illness or suffer an injury that causes pain or difficulty with functional mobility, you may benefit from the skilled services of a physical therapist.  Your physical therapist can assess your specific situation and provide focused treatments and exercises to help you return to your previous level of function.

Your first session with your physical therapist is called an initial evaluation.

 During this session, your physical therapist will spend time with you to learn about your condition, your previous level of function, and how your condition is affecting your life.  He or she will then take specific measurements of the impairments that may be causing your problem and put together a treatment plan for you.

Getting Referred to Physical Therapy

If you are having pain or difficulty moving around, you should visit your doctor to assess your situation.  Your doctor may prescribe various diagnostic tests to help you get an accurate diagnosis.  He or she may refer you to see a physical therapist to start working on your functional mobility limitations.

If your doctor fails to refer you to a physical therapist, simply ask for a referral.  Many times doctors are quite busy and fail to remember the value-packed benefits that physical therapy offers.

Many states in the United States allow you to visit a physical therapist via direct access.

 This means that you can be assess and treated by a PT without a referral from your doctor or other healthcare provider.  Recent studies indicate that being assessed and treated by a physical therapist directly is a safe and effective way to get back to your normal activity level.

Preparing for Your Initial PT Evaluation

If you require the skilled services of a physical therapist, you'll first need to find one.

 There are different ways to locate a PT, including:

  • Ask your doctor if he or she knows a reputable phsyical therapist.
  • Ask a friend or family member.
  • Check online; many PT's have websites with specific information about their clinic.
  • Call the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) or visit their website. 

When you contact your physical therapist to set up your initial evaluation, you may want to ask some questions about what to expect from PT.  You may also want to inquire if your physical therapist is a specialist that treats your specific condition.  Also, you want to check if the PT you choose accepts your insurance as payment and what your personal out-of-pocket expense may be.

When preparing for your initial physical therapy appointment, be sure to review some important facts about the history of your problem.  When and how did your problem begin?  What was your functional mobility status prior to your injury?  How is your problem changing, and what makes things better or worse?

Your physical therapist will likely ask you some questions about your injury or illness, and he or she may want to know what medications, if any, you are taking.

What to Wear to Your First Session

Be prepared to move around a lot during your first physical therapy session.  With that in mind, make sure you wear clothing that is easy to move around in.  If your have shoulder pain, wear a shirt that allows access to your shoulder and arm.  Shorts should be worn if you have hip pain, knee pain, or ankle pain.  

Many physical therapy clinics have a changing room for you to change your clothing.  Be sure to ask about what you should wear to PT when preparing for your first physical therapy session.

The Physical Therapy Examination

After your physical therapist talks to you about your condition, he or she will then perform an examination.  Your PT will focus on measuring impairments that may be causing your problem or that may be affected by your injury.

Common measurements taken during a physical therapy examination include:

During the examination, your physical therapist should give you clear instructions about what to expect and what to do.

After your examination, your PT will have a pretty clear idea of a treatment plan to start working on decreasing your pain and improving your mobility.  Your physical therapist should discuss with you the goals of treatment and the expected course of your rehab.

Your physical therapist may start treatment after your initial evaluation.  He or she may use therapeutic modalities like ultrasound or electrical stimulation to help manage your pain and improve your muscle function.

Exercise is one of your main tools to help you move better and feel better, and it should be one of the main staples of your rehab program.  After your initial evaluation, your physical therapist should prescribe specific exercises for you to do in a home exercise program (HEP).

What if You Have Questions?

The relationship you have with your physical therapist should feel like a therapeutic alliance; both of you should be working towards the goal of helping you move better and feel better.

If you have questions about what is happening during your PT treatment, just ask.  Your physical therapist should encourage questions from you and should be able to provide clear, concise answers about your treatments, your condition, and your rehab program. 

Your physical therapist is one of the best resources to use if you have an illness, injury, or surgical procedure that limits your functional mobility.  Starting a rehabilitation program may cause some anxiety, and knowing what to expect from your initial physical therapy evaluation can help alleviate some of the anxiety and allow you to focus on getting better.

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