Posted on October 3rd, 2022
If a doctor has told you that physical therapy could help you and you’ve never had it before, you probably have some questions about what to expect from physical therapy.
Physical therapy helps to identify, treat and diagnose movement problems in people of all ages and abilities, says Anita Bemis-Dougherty, vice president of practice at the American Physical Therapy Association.
Physical therapy focuses on the joints and muscles of your body, and is often associated with the treatment of pain from an injury or to aid in post-surgery recovery. However, licensed physical therapists, or those working under them, actually treat a variety of conditions.
Here are just some of the health issues for which physical therapy is used and how it may help:
Physical therapy is performed by licensed physical therapists and physical therapy assistants. Some physical therapists specialize in certain areas, such as wound management, pediatrics or sports. It’s possible to get physical therapy for chronic conditions, as well as newer, acute problems.
There are a few benefits associated with physical therapy:
You may get a referral to physical therapy from a doctor. It’s also possible to seek direct access to physical therapy yourself, although your state laws may have restrictions on how many appointments you can have without a doctor’s referral.
Although many health insurance policies cover physical therapy, check with your policy in advance to find out about coverage. Some may require you to have a doctor’s referral to get your care covered, says Lauren Lobert Frison, a physical therapist and owner of APEX Physical Therapy in Brighton, Michigan.
You can compare physical therapy clinics before starting treatment, and even get a tour if they offer that, to help you find the right clinic for you. When you visit, you can also ask how many patients are treated by a physical therapist at one time. It’s common to treat a couple of patients within the same hour, but you’ll get better care if the therapist limits how many patients are seen at one time, Lobert Frison says.
Your first physical therapy appointment will probably go a little more smoothly if you take a few minutes to prepare for it. Here are some tips to prepare.
In the days leading up to your appointment, make a note of any symptoms you have related to the reason for your physical therapy. Some questions to consider: What makes your pain or physical problem worse? What makes it better? Can you describe the pain? Is the pain worse at a certain time of day or during certain activities?
If you can, complete any paperwork in advance, advises physical therapist John Reddon of Teton Therapy in Riverton, Wyoming. If your first session is an hour and you need 15 minutes to complete your paperwork, you’re cutting into time for the therapist to get to know more about your problem.
Bring a list of any medications that you use, including supplements and over-the-counter treatments. This is valuable for the physical therapist to review. Also, bring your photo ID and insurance card. If you have imaging results related to your injury or problem, such as X-rays, bring them with you.
Wear comfortable clothing so you can move around and so the physical therapist can touch the treatment area. Shorts, sweatpants or shirts you can easily move around in are best. This isn’t the time to wear your skin-tight blue jeans, Reddon says.
Your first session of physical therapy is an initial evaluation to help the physical therapist get to know you and your problem better. This will typically take place in a private area of the clinic, not the open setting with equipment and tables that’s common in many physical therapy offices.
During the evaluation, expect your physical therapist to ask about your condition, medical history and current symptoms, Lobert Frison says.
Common tests that a physical therapist will use during the initial evaluation include:
All of this gives the physical therapist information to come up with an effective treatment plan. If there’s extra time, you may start some treatment during your initial appointment. Your therapist also may give you exercises you can do at home, such as stretches that target your area of concern.
Some people expect their physical therapy sessions to just be exercises they do for the full treatment time, Reddon says. However, that's not usually the case. Don’t expect to just do an hour’s worth of exercises as you dive deeper into physical therapy, Reddon says.
As the physical therapy clinic’s staff start your actual treatment, there’s a wide range of treatments and techniques they'll use to help you feel better. Those treatments and techniques include:
It’s not uncommon for physical therapy clinics to schedule several appointments each week – usually two to three appointments – for you when you initially start treatment. There are a few reasons for this. More frequent appointments help you to get better, quicker. They also give the physical therapist a chance to target any new irritation that’s occurred to the treatment area in the previous few days, Reddon says.
The actual number of appointments you need will depend on your exact needs, but a general range is 8 to 14 appointments total for non-surgical conditions and 20 visits for post-surgical conditions, Lombardo says. It’s also possible to have a session every couple of months if you’ve recovered from a problem and just need some reinforcement to reach or maintain your goals, Tutt says.
With the time, and perhaps financial commitment, involved with your physical therapy, you’ll want to do everything you can to get the most out of your sessions. Here are a few tips to maximize your physical therapy: