How Do I Know When to Stop Physical Therapy?

Your physical therapist can assess your condition.
Work closely with your physical therapist to determine the best course of treatment. Dougal Waters/Getty Images

If you are injured or ill and are suffering from a loss of normal functional mobility you may benefit from the skilled services of a physical therapist.  Your physical therapist is a movement expert who can analyze your condition and prescribe the right treatment to help you return to your maximal level of function.

In an ideal world, your physical therapy episode of care will go along smoothly.  Your PT will assess your condition, teach you about your injury, show you how physical therapy can be of benefit to you, and work with you to set realistic rehabilitation goals.

In this optimal scenario, you will realize rapid gains in your mobility and quickly resume normal activities.  You will achieve your physical therapy goals in the timeframe that has been set by you and your physical therapist, and you will be able to discontinue services with a self-care strategy to prevent future episodes of your condition.

But patients do not always experience the optimal scenario.  Sometimes there are bumps in the road.

So how do you know when you should discontinue physical therapy?  What are the signs that indicate you should stop PT and seek alternative forms of treatment?

You have achieved your goals.  Getting better and returning to your previous level of function is the optimal scenario in physical therapy.  This is a good indicator that you should discontinue physical therapy services.  Make sure your PT teaches you how to prevent future episodes of your problem and what to do if your condition strikes again.

There is a lack of progress.  If you are working hard in physical therapy, you should be noticing gains in your mobility and a return to your previous level of function.  Your pain level should be decreasing, and impairments like limited range of motion (ROM) and strength should be improving.

If you are not making gains in physical therapy, you should have a conversation with your PT about your concerns and your lack of progress.

 Are there other treatments that you should try, or is a different type of treatment available that can help you?  A good physical therapist knows when he or she can help you; a great physical therapist knows when to stop treatment.

Continuing physical therapy when you are not making progress is not a good idea.  It may be expensive, both for you and for your insurance company, and it may simply be delaying you from receiving the care that may help you.

There is a worsening of your condition.  Akin to a lack a progress in physical therapy is a worsening of your condition while in physical therapy.  If your pain is getting worse, or if you are noticing continued loss of functional mobility, you should have a conversation with your physical therapist.

No physical therapist wants a patient's condition to worsen, and if things are getting worse for you in physical therapy, your PT may be able to alter your treatment to help reverse your worsening condition.  But sometimes it may be best to stop physical therapy services and seek out a different mode of treatment for your condition.

 Your PT should be able to recommend alternatives to physical therapy that may help you.

A Word of Caution

Physical therapy services are often covered by your private insurance.  Many times a specific number of sessions is allowed by your insurance company.  While you should understand your health insurance limitations, be aware of the PT who is too focused on the number of visits allowed.  Your physical therapist should be focused on your clinical course of treatment.

If your insurance company will pay for 10 sessions of physical therapy, there is no need to use all 10 sessions if your condition improves and you return to your normal function.  If you are not making progress or if your condition is worsening, make sure your PT knows this and is not focused on "making all PT sessions."  If your PT is too focused on you attending all sessions rather than in your clinical course of care, it may be time to find a new physical therapist.

Hopefully your physical therapy experience will be a positive one and your condition will improve in a few short weeks or months.  If you are not making progress or if your condition is worsening after a few weeks of physical therapy, you should consider stopping your current care and speaking with your PT or doctor to find the best care for your condition.

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