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Home > Health Library > Physical Therapy
Physical therapy is a type of treatment you may need when health problems make it hard to move around and do everyday tasks. It helps you move better and may relieve pain. It also helps improve or restore your physical function and your fitness level.
The goal of physical therapy is to make daily tasks and activities easier. For example, it may help with walking, going up stairs, or getting in and out of bed.
Physical therapy can help with recovery after some surgeries. Your doctor may suggest physical therapy for injuries or long-term health problems such as arthritis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Physical therapy may be used alone or with other treatments.
Your physical therapist will examine you and talk to you about your symptoms and your daily activity. He or she will then work with you on a treatment plan. The goals are to help your joints move better and to restore or increase your flexibility, strength, endurance, coordination, and/or balance.
First, your therapist will try to reduce your pain and swelling. Your physical therapist also may use manual therapy, education, and techniques such as heat, cold, water, ultrasound, and electrical stimulation.
Physical therapy almost always includes exercise. It can include stretching, core exercises, weight lifting, and walking. Your physical therapist may teach you an exercise program so you can do it at home.
Treatment may cause mild soreness or swelling. This is normal, but talk to your physical therapist if it bothers you.
You'll want a therapist who has experience with your health problem. Some physical therapists are board-certified in areas such as orthopedics, sports, and neurology and may offer more specialized care. Physical therapists can also specialize in certain types of care, such as:
Here are some questions to think about before you choose a physical therapist:
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Physical therapy nearly always involves exercise of some kind that is specifically designed for your injury, illness, condition, or to help prevent future health problems.
Exercise is anything you do in addition to your regular daily activity that will improve your flexibility, strength, coordination, or endurance. It even includes changing how you do your regular activities to give you some health benefits. For example, if you park a little farther away from the door of the grocery store, the extra distance you walk is exercise. Also, exercise can include stretching to reduce stress on joints, core stability exercises to strengthen the muscles of your trunk (your back and abdomen) and hips, lifting weights to strengthen muscles, walking, doing water aerobics, and many other forms of activity. Your physical therapist is likely to teach you how to do an exercise program on your own at home so you can continue to work toward your fitness goals and prevent future problems.
Manual therapy (sometimes called bodywork) is a general term for treatment performed mostly with the hands. The goals of manual therapy include relaxation, decreased pain, and increased flexibility.
Manual therapy can include:
Physical therapy almost always includes education and training in areas such as:
In some locations, physical therapists are specially trained to be involved in other types of treatment, including:
Other treatments include:
Physical therapy can help you recover from an injury and avoid future injury. Your physical therapist can help you reduce pain in the soft tissues (muscles, tendons, and ligaments), build muscle strength, and improve flexibility, function, and range of motion. He or she can also evaluate how you do an activity and make suggestions for doing the activity in a way that is less likely to result in an injury.
Physical therapy can help you live more easily with chronic or ongoing health conditions such as spinal stenosis, arthritis, and Parkinson's disease. Your physical therapist will work with you to establish your goals. Then he or she will create a program of educational, range-of-motion, strengthening, and endurance activities to meet your needs.
Some conditions involve several body systems and can lead to significant disability. These conditions—such as stroke, spinal cord injury, and major cardiopulmonary (heart and lung) problems—are usually addressed by a team of health professionals through programs such as cardiac rehab and stroke rehab. The team can include doctors; nurses; physical, occupational, and speech therapists; psychologists; and social workers, among others.
Physical therapists are a critical part of this team. They address the issues of range of motion, strength, endurance, mobility (walking, going up and down stairs, getting in and out of a bed or chair), and safety. The physical therapist may also get you the equipment you need, such as a walker or wheelchair, and make sure you can use the equipment appropriately.
Physical therapists also work with children who have major injuries or health conditions, such as cerebral palsy. They address the usual issues of range of motion, strength, endurance, and mobility. Also, the therapist considers the child's special growth and developmental needs.
Treatment is often provided in the school or in a facility just for children. The way physical therapy and other services are delivered in the schools varies among the states. Talk to your child's doctor, school, or your local health department if you think your child may qualify for evaluation or treatment services.
Other Works Consulted
American Physical Therapy Association (2012). Who are physical therapists? Available online: http://www.apta.org/AboutPTs.
Basford JR, Baxter GD (2010). Therapeutic physical agents. In WR Frontera et al., eds., Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation: Principles and Practice, 5th ed., vol. 2, pp. 1691–1712. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
Malanga GA, et al. (2010). Sports medicine. In WR Frontera et al., eds., DeLisa's Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation: Principles and Practice, 5th ed., vol. 2, pp. 1413–1436. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics (2012-2013). Physical therapists. In Occupational Outlook Handbook. Available online: http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physical-therapists.htm.
Current as of:
July 1, 2021
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: Adam Husney MD - Family MedicineKathleen Romito MD - Family MedicineJoan Rigg PT, OCS - Physical Therapy
Current as of: July 1, 2021
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine & Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine & Joan Rigg PT, OCS - Physical Therapy
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
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