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:
Physical therapy may be used alone or with other treatments.
You may get physical therapy at:
Your physical therapist will examine you and make a treatment plan. Depending on your health problem, your therapist will help you with flexibility, strength, endurance, coordination, and/or balance.
First, your therapist will try to reduce your pain and swelling. Then he or she will probably work to increase your flexibility, strength, and endurance.
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 therapist are board-certified in areas such as orthopedics, sports, geriatrics, and neurology and may offer more specialized care. Physical therapists can specialize in:
Here are some questions to think about when choosing a physical therapist:
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Learning about physical therapy:
Types of treatment:
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. 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 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 is a general term for treatment performed with the hands and not with any other devices or machines. The goals of manual therapy include relaxation, less pain, and more flexibility. Manual therapy includes:
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:
Ice and cold packs are used in physical therapy to relieve pain, swelling, and inflammation from injuries and other conditions such as arthritis. Ice can be used for 10 to 20 minutes at a time. In some cases, ice may be used several times a day. Some therapists also use cooling lotions or sprays. For more information, see:
Heat can help relax and heal your muscles and soft tissues by increasing blood circulation. This can be especially helpful if a joint is stiff from osteoarthritis or from being immobilized. Heat can also relax the muscles before exercise. But heat can also increase swelling in an injured area if it is used too soon. For more information, see:
Hydrotherapy is the use of water to treat a disease or to maintain health. The term "hydrotherapy" (water therapy) can mean either exercise in the water or using water for care and healing of soft tissues. This type of therapy is based on the theory that water has many properties that give it the ability to heal.
For more information, see Hydrotherapy.
Ultrasound therapy uses high-pitched sound waves to ease muscle spasms and relax and warm muscles before exercise, to help relieve pain and inflammation, and to promote healing. Although the use of ultrasound is common, some studies show a benefit from this treatment and others do not. Some physical therapists do not recommend deep-heating techniques. Discuss the benefits and risks with your physical therapist or doctor before starting this therapy. This type of treatment is not generally used for children.
Electrical stimulation is the general term that describes the use of electrical current to create an effect in the body. There are several uses for electrical stimulation.
At your first physical therapy visit, your physical therapist will review your medical history and do a physical evaluation. Depending on your diagnosis or symptoms, your therapist may evaluate your flexibility, strength, balance, coordination, posture, and/or heart rate and respiration. Your therapist may look at how you walk or get up from lying down (functional activities), along with how you use and position your body as you perform activities (body mechanics). The therapist will work with you to decide on your goals for physical therapy and to begin planning your treatment. You may or may not begin your actual therapy at the first visit.
In general, the first goal of treatment is to decrease any pain and swelling you may have. The next steps usually are to increase your flexibility and then to increase your strength and endurance, depending on your condition. The goal is always to improve your ability to do your daily tasks and activities. As with any exercise, you may have mild soreness or swelling as a result of treatment, and these should be noted by your therapist. Your therapist will watch your reaction to treatment (for example, if you have swelling or become out of breath) and will adjust your treatment as needed. This ongoing assessment and adjustment means that the risk of any injury or complication from physical therapy is very low.
Your physical therapist will evaluate your need for special equipment such as particular footwear, splints, or crutches. If you need equipment, your therapist can help you know what to get and either get it for you or tell you where you can find it.
In most cases, part of your physical therapy will be education. Your therapist may teach you about a home exercise program, proper body mechanics, and the use of any special equipment you may need. He or she will then periodically check on how well you are transferring the skills you learn in therapy to your daily life.
Your physical therapist will continually reassess your progress toward your treatment goals. He or she will work with you and your doctors to plan for your discharge from physical therapy.
Physical therapy can help you recover from an injury and avoid future injury by reducing pain in the soft tissues (muscles, tendons, and ligaments), improving flexibility and function, and building muscle strength. Your physical therapist 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. Following are examples of injuries for which physical therapy is helpful:
Physical therapy can help you live more easily with chronic or ongoing health conditions. Your physical therapist will work with you to establish your goals, then create a program of educational, range-of-motion, strengthening, and endurance activities to meet your needs. Here are some examples of chronic conditions that may be helped by physical therapy:
Some conditions involve several body systems and can lead to significant disability. These conditions—such as stroke, brain injury, spinal cord injury, and major cardiopulmonary (heart and lung) problems—are usually addressed by a team of health professionals. 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. Following are some examples of health conditions that commonly involve a rehabilitation team:
Physical therapists also work with children who have major injuries or health conditions. 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.
Cerebral palsy is an example of a childhood health condition that is usually addressed in part by physical therapy. Other injuries and conditions include brain injury, muscular dystrophy, and arthritis.
|American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS)|
|6300 North River Road|
|Rosemont, IL 60018-4262|
The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) provides information and education to raise the public's awareness of musculoskeletal conditions, with an emphasis on preventive measures. The AAOS website contains information on orthopedic conditions and treatments, injury prevention, and wellness and exercise.
|American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation|
|9700 West Bryn Mawr Avenue|
|Rosemont, IL 60018-5701|
The American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (AAPMR) is the medical society for the specialty of physical medicine and rehabilitation. The website includes a directory of member PM&R physicians (physiatrists) that can be searched by last name, location, or telephone number.
|American Occupational Therapy Association|
|4720 Montgomery Lane, P.O. Box 31220|
|Bethesda, MD 20824-1220|
The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) is the nationally recognized professional association of approximately 35,000 occupational therapists, occupational therapy assistants, and students of occupational therapy. AOTA's mission is to advance the quality, availability, use, and support of occupational therapy through standard-setting, advocacy, education, and research on behalf of its members and the public.
|KidsHealth for Parents, Children, and Teens|
|Nemours Home Office|
|10140 Centurion Parkway|
|Jacksonville, FL 32256|
This website is sponsored by the Nemours Foundation. It has a wide range of information about children's health—from allergies and diseases to normal growth and development (birth to adolescence). This website offers separate areas for kids, teens, and parents, each providing age-appropriate information that the child or parent can understand. You can sign up to get weekly emails about your area of interest.
|1111 North Fairfax Street|
|Alexandria, VA 22314-1488|
The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) Move Forward website provides information and education to the public about physical therapy and how it is used to treat certain conditions. APTA is a national organization representing over 85,000 physical therapists, physical therapist assistants, and students. APTA's goal is to foster advancements in physical therapist education, practice, and research.
Other Works Consulted
- American Physical Therapy Association (2009). Criteria for standards of practice for physical therapy. Available online: http://www.apta.org/AM/Template.cfm?Section=Home&Template=/CM/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=68019.
- 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.
- Becker BE, Cole AJ (2005). Aquatic rehabilitation. In JA DeLisa et al., eds., Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation: Principles and Practice, 4th ed., vol. 1, pp. 479–492. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
- Cotter AC, et al. (2005). Complementary and alternative medicine. In JA DeLisa et al., eds., Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation: Principles and Practice, 4th ed., vol. 1, pp. 465–478. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
- Ho CH, Bogie K (2010). Pressure ulcers. In WR Frontera et al., eds., DeLisa's Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation: Principles and Practice, 5th ed., vol. 2, pp. 1393–1409. 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.
- Pape KE, Chipman ML (2005). Electrotherapy in rehabilitation. In JA DeLisa et al., eds., Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation: Principles and Practice, 4th ed., vol. 1, pp. 435–463. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
- Parikh SS, Bid CV (2005). Vestibular rehabilitation. In JA DeLisa et al., eds., Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation: Principles and Practice, 4th ed., vol. 1, pp. 957–974. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
- U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics (2012–2013). Physical therapists. In the Occupational Outlook Handbook. Available online: http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physical-therapists.htm.
- Weiting JM, et al. (2005). Manipulation, massage and traction. In JA DeLisa et al., eds., Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation: Principles and Practice, 4th ed., vol. 1, pp. 285–309. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
|Primary Medical Reviewer||Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine|
|Specialist Medical Reviewer||David A. Fleckenstein, MPT - Physical Therapy|
|Last Revised||March 4, 2011|
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