what is physical therapy for?

The National Institute of Health defines physical therapy as a healthcare specialization focusing on the assessment, evaluation, and treatment of individuals with limited functional mobility.

Physical therapists are healthcare professionals who are licensed by the state to provide treatment services where they work.

Before they can work in the field, physical therapists must have either a master’s degree or clinical doctorate from an accredited educational institute. They must also pass the state licensing exam.

These medical professionals are found in different healthcare settings, such as outpatient centers, private clinics, rehab centers, hospitals, nursing homes, sports and fitness centers, schools and universities, occupational settings, pubic and government agencies, and research centers.

Physical therapists are comprehensively trained to evaluate a patient’s condition and help recover their optimum function and independence. They utilize hands-on techniques and treatment to help patients move better. Since every patient and their health situation is unique, the treatment plan developed by physical therapists for each patient is highly personalized.

When you have difficulty doing your normal daily activities, you are an older individual with mobility or balance issues, or if you have been injured, it may be beneficial for you to consult with a local physical therapist.

Finding Local Physical Therapists

Typically, your primary care physician will refer you to a physical therapist. You may also ask family and friends for recommendations. Additionally, you can use the online directory made available by the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA).

Physical Therapy Initial Evaluation

The initial evaluation is your first session with a physical therapist. This is when he or she will discuss and learn about your previous level of function, current condition, how it’s affecting your standard of living, and what your therapy goals are.
That’s why it’s essential to prepare for your initial physical therapy evaluation. Make sure that you know the vital facts surrounding your condition. It would be helpful to write them down, so you don’t miss any important detail. Some of the questions you can expect to hear are:

  • What are your symptoms?

  • When did your symptoms begin showing?

  • How often do the symptoms occur?

  • What was your level of mobility prior to the injury or symptoms?

  • What makes the symptoms worse or better?

  • What surgeries or other medical procedures have you had in the past?

  • Are you currently taking any medications?

After the evaluation, your physical therapist will need to conduct a physical examination. Some of the standard procedures during a physical therapy examination include range of motion measurements, palpation, strength tests, balance tests, functional mobility tests, and neurological tests.

All this information gathered from your initial evaluation, and physical examination will help your physical therapist put together a rehab and therapy plan for you. Expect to hear instructions on what you can expect from the treatment and what you need to do to ensure its success.

You’ll also be advised on the recommended length and frequency of your treatment. How often you’ll need to receive treatment will depend on the magnitude of your pain and current mobility level.

Since patients and physical therapists work closely together, both will need to put in enough effort into achieving the patients’ therapy goals. As a patient, don’t feel like you can’t ask questions about what’s happening during your therapy sessions.

Open and transparent communication between patients and physical therapists is highly encouraged. This ensures that patients get clear and concise answers they need about their recovery.

What Makes a Good Physical Therapist


The healthcare field is ever-changing. An excellent physical therapist must be updated with the latest trends in physical therapy. This helps in properly diagnosing and treating patients.


Not all patients will have the same level of cooperation or commitment to their therapy program. There are some who may find it challenging to follow instructions, while others may be easier to deal with.

Either way, patience is key when it comes to addressing different health issues.


In the healthcare field, caring is an essential virtue to have. If patients see that you genuinely care about their recovery, they will follow your instructions and listen to your advice. 


A physical therapist knows what his or her limitations are. Setting realistic and feasible therapy goals, rather than sugarcoating it for the patient, will deliver favorable results.


Physical therapy patients are often those dealing with pain and discomfort. Thus, working with a physical therapist who radiates positivity ca help lift the morale and attitude of the patient.

Good Communicator

To succeed in physical therapy programs, a harmonious relationship between patient and therapist is needed – especially since some programs may span for several weeks or months.

Physical therapists must know how to communicate properly with their patients and not regard them as a mere job or “case.” Excellent communication and relationship between patient and therapist ensure that you can achieve your therapy goals.

Who Can Benefit from Physical Therapy?

Physical therapy is a healthcare approach that can help patients of all ages throughout all the stages of their recovery – starting from the initial diagnosis all the way through the restorative and preventive stages.

While people of all ages can benefit from this type of treatment, the type of physical therapy you get will depend on your specific health condition and healthcare goals. This is why it’s vital to have an in-depth and thorough consultation with your doctor and physical therapist before undergoing treatment.

A customized physical therapy treatment plan can help bring back a person’s optimum level of function as well as educate them with activities and lifestyle modifications that can improve their health.

Typically, a physical therapy referral is made by a patient’s doctor. However, there are patients who seek this treatment option on their own. Either way, those who seek physical therapy can expect the following benefits:

Improved Balance, Strength, and Mobility

Physical therapists are movement specialists trained in optimizing their patients’ well-being through hands-on care, prescribed exercise, and proper patient education. A significant part of their role is to provide information about cause and effect in our body.

For instance, neck pain could be the cause of poor posture, while too much typing and texting could have led to carpal tunnel, or knee pain could be because we need to strengthen our hip area.

Physical therapists evaluate your day-to-day physical activities and help you adjust them to improve and maintain your body mechanics. An experienced physical therapist can educate you on why your body reacts a certain way. He or she can then devise a healthcare plan for you to address any issues and correct them.

Prevent Injuries

Many of us may not have even received treatment from a physical therapist – unless we’ve been injured. However, if we treat physical therapy as a preventative care practice, it can help prevent future injuries from happening. It can also substantially help those of us who want to work on our posture or if we are part of competitive sports.

A good physical therapist will discuss and learn about our daily activity levels. From this assessment, he or she will give recommendations to prevent future injuries. This includes what to watch out for when doing your regular movements.

Help Avoid Surgical Procedures

Surgeries are sometimes necessary and unavoidable. Physical therapists can perform pre-surgery treatment programs that make recovery time better and provide a more favorable result post-surgery.

In some cases, patients have reported an improvement in motion as well as a decline in pain after receiving pre-surgical physical therapy. There were also some instances wherein surgical procedures were not needed altogether because of routine pre-surgical physical therapy.

Prepare to Age Well

As we grow older, we are at risk of losing physical strength and muscle mass. This makes it harder for us to balance and carry our own body weight. Physical therapy can address arthritic and joint pain and other osteoarthritis conditions.

Also, one of the most fundamental things for aging adults to learn is how to move correctly. Making adjustments and modifications to their day-to-day physical activities help in preventing slips, falls, and other injuries. Physical therapy helps older patients maximize their physical functions as much as possible as they grow older.

Manage a Condition or Control a Disease

Physical therapy goes beyond rehabilitation treatment. There are physical therapists trained to help patients with weight, lunch, or heart conditions. Even some diabetic patients or those suffering from pelvic floor pain, for example, can undergo physical therapy.

Physical conditioning treatment can also address weight issues. By utilizing movement, you are reducing the need for specific medications, which in turn lessen the risk for stroke and heart disease.

Aside from those ailments, one of the areas physical therapy can focus on is helping to manage neurological conditions such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. With physical therapy, it’s all about utilizing movement to help the body manage or control certain conditions.

Types of Physical Therapist

Physical therapists are a vital member of a patient’s overall medical team. These healthcare professionals help patients in optimizing their physical functions and restoring their health after an accident, injury, or disease.

Physical therapists perform a variety of specialized hands-on techniques to assess physical dysfunctions, develop personalized treatment plans, utilize therapeutic stretches and exercises, help in the neuromuscular handling of their movements, manage pain, and ensures that the patient sees the treatment program through.

Physical therapy can further be divided into nine different specialized practices, as stated by the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties. Each of these specializations has its own set of responsibilities and purpose.

Orthopedics Physical Therapy

This is the most popular physical therapy specialization. It involves the treatment of conditions affecting the muscles, ligaments, bones, tendons, and joints.

Orthopedic physical therapists see a wide variety of patients – anyone experiencing a sprained ankle or strained muscle, have had broken bones, those who have had joint replacement surgeries, or those suffering from stroke, arthritis, etc.

Sports Physical Therapy

Because of high levels of routine athletic activities, it’s not uncommon for athletes to suffer from injuries. This is where sports physical therapy comes in. Typically, sports therapy patients are injured athletes who want to gain back their peak form and performance.

Some of the most common injuries while engaging in athletic activities are concussions, ACL tears, dislocated shoulders, rotator cuff tears, and hip flexor strains. Sports physical therapists will often focus on muscle strength restoration, speed and agility improvement, and accelerating reaction time.

Pediatrics Physical Therapy

As the name suggests, pediatrics physical therapy focuses on working with children – from newborns to adolescents. Physical therapists specializing in this field help children correct any disorders that may inhibit their growth and development. Some of these disorders are scoliosis, brain injuries, cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy, and other developmental delays.

Geriatrics Physical Therapy

The older we get, the more health conditions we may experience. These age-related conditions include osteoporosis, arthritis, and other muscle soreness and joint stiffness conditions.

Physical therapists who treat elderly patients focus on managing and treating pain. The aim is to help elderly patients maintain a healthy and physically active lifestyle as much as possible.

Women’s Health Physical Therapy

Women of all ages will often face conditions at different stages of their life. Conditions such as pelvic pain, lymphedema, osteoporosis, as well as pre and postnatal care, can be managed by physical therapy.

Physical therapists in this field are knowledgeable in understanding the female body’s musculoskeletal systems as well as the conditions that impact women more than men.

The goal is to promote and maintain overall health and wellness for women of all ages and lifestyles.

Clinical Electrophysiology Physical Therapy

This branch of physical therapy includes two types of treatment: would management and electrotherapy.

A procedure called electromyography (EMG) is performed to know the current health of the nerve cells and the muscles. The EMG uses electrodes to gauge the electrical activities in a muscle.

With the information collected, a physical therapist can determine a treatment plan for a patient’s nerves or muscles.

Physical therapists who specialize in this practice may also use electrotherapy. This procedure makes use of electrical stimulation to promote wound healing, prevent blood clots, improve blood circulation, relieve muscle tension, and manage pain.

Electrotherapy has also shown to speed up wound healing. It’s utilized to treat wounds, including diabetic ulcers, lacerations, post-surgical incisions, and abrasions.

Neurological Physical Therapy

Patients with conditions affecting their nervous and spinal systems may turn to neurological physical therapy for treatment.

Conditions such as brain or spinal cord issues, sciatica, multiple sclerosis, neuropathy, cerebral palsy, and fibromyalgia may affect the balance, coordination, reflexes, and overall movement of a patient.

Neurological physical therapy techniques focus on improving motor defects and regaining physical function.

Cardiopulmonary Physical Therapy

This physical therapy specialization focuses on cardiac and pulmonary health. There are two rehabilitation techniques in this specialty: cardiac rehabilitation and pulmonary rehabilitation.

Cardiopulmonary physical therapists utilize cardiac rehabilitation techniques for patients with heart disease, have had heart attacks, or those simply wanting to improve their cardiac health.

Cardiac rehabilitation entails performing exercises that build a patient’s endurance. Physical therapists also educate patients on how to manage stress properly.

On the other hand, physical therapists offer pulmonary rehabilitation to patients with related conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, sarcoidosis, or cystic fibrosis.

Patients are taught proper breathing techniques, work to improve endurance, and offer professional advice on the management of their condition.

Oncology Physical Therapy

Oncology refers to the exploration of different cancer treatments. Oncologic physical therapists work with patients diagnosed with cancer or those recovering from it.

Cancer can manifest a variety of conditions and symptoms – depending on what type of cancer it is. Some of these physical symptoms, such as pain, joint stiffness, muscle weakness, difficulty walking, loss of balance, loss of endurance, loss of bone density, and muscle numbness, can benefit from physical therapy techniques.

The main goal of this physical therapy specialization is to help patients recover their physical capacity as they endure or recover from cancer.

Signs You Need Physical Therapy

To understand if physical therapy can help treat your condition or if you are a good candidate for it, it’s best to consult with your doctor first and see if you need a referral.

In some areas in the country, you can go see a physical therapist directly without a prescription or referral from a doctor.​

This is referred to as direct access. It should be noted, however, that a physical therapist must refer you to a doctor if you have a condition or injury that is beyond their capacity to diagnose or treat.

Physical therapists can help treat a wide range of conditions – from a simple sprained ankle to a more complicated neurological or cardiac disorder, or even cancer.

The techniques used in physical therapy target the body mechanics, fitness, and overall wellness of an individual. Therefore, this healthcare approach plays a significant role in a person’s general health and well-being. 

If you are experiencing any issues with mobility – no matter what your age is – it’s a sign that you may benefit from getting physical therapy treatment. Some other signs that you may need physical therapy include:

Lingering Dull or Sharp Pain

If you’ve already taken some rest and yet there’s either a lingering dull pain or sharp acute pains, then it might be a good time to visit your doctor or physical therapist. Pain – whatever severity it is – is an indicator that something is wrong inside your body that could worsen over time, especially if you don’t address it right away.

Your physical therapist can pinpoint the source of your pain and recommend a treatment plan. When you have a condition that is caught early and addressed quickly, you wouldn’t have the need for medication, medical procedures, or surgery.

Anti-Pain Medications Are Not Helping

We’re typically accustomed to taking over-the-counter pain-relief or anti-inflammatory drugs to manage our pain. However, there are conditions that these medications can’t fix.

If you’re still experiencing pain, get some guidance from an experienced physical therapist before you take another Ibuprofen.

Pre-Surgery or Post-Surgery

Before a surgical procedure, you would want your body to be in its most optimum form. The same concept goes for after the surgery. Ensuring that your body is as its most motivated, most flexible, and strongest state helps it respond better to the operation and get the best results post-surgery.

In the medical field, pre and post-surgery conditioning treatments are well-known concepts. For procedures such as back surgeries, ACL reconstructions, and joint replacements, doing prehabilitation (or prehab) helps patients do better post-surgery in regards to managing pain and getting their functions back.

Doing Competitive Sports

Sports-related injuries are unavoidable when you’re an athlete. Therefore, sports physical therapy and rehabilitation programs are part of an athlete’s wellness training. Sports physical therapists create a treatment plan that can help athletes get to their peak form as fast as possible with minimal risks of re-injury.

Also, sports physical therapists help develop warm-ups, cool-downs, conditioning, and strengthening techniques to help athletes perform well and maintain their proper form.

Starting a Fitness Plan

A health coach or personal trainer can help you work on achieving your fitness goals. However, if you’ve had pain or a nagging injury that may affect your fitness performance, it would be best to see a physical therapist. A physical therapist can do a full assessment of your musculoskeletal system to ensure that you’re starting your fitness journey on a healthy and positive note.

Trouble with Gait, Walking, or Balance

Aside from treating tendon, muscle, and joint issues, physical therapy also addresses difficulties in gait, walking, and balance. Older people are more prone to losing their balance and coordination because the vestibular system (balance, motor functions, spatial orientation) is most affected as we age.

Lower Back Pain or Discomfort When Sitting Down

Many of us do our jobs while sitting down in front of the computer all day. Even those with more active professions may experience lower back pain or discomfort when sitting down because of poor posture. Physical therapists can conduct comprehensive ergonomic evaluations so that they can recommend proper workplace modifications.

Here are some other indications that you may need physical therapy:

  • Low back pain
  • Neck pain
  • Shoulder problems
  • Arm, hand, and wrist conditions
  • Knee and ankle problems
  • Foot problems
  • Mobility issues
  • Balance issues
  • Arthritis
  • Fractures
  • Strengthening efforts
  • Orthopedic conditions
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Bowel problems and bladder incontinence
  • Pre-surgical conditioning
  • Post-surgical conditioning
  • Cardiac rehab
  • Work-related injuries such as slip, fall, repetitive motion accidents, and other trauma
  • Sports-related injuries

As you can see, there are a wide range of signs and symptoms that show if you can benefit from working with a physical therapist. If you are still not sure, it’s best to talk about your options with your doctor. He or she can give you the professional recommendation you need that will point you in the right direction.

How Long Do You Need to Have Physical Therapy 

For any patients receiving treatment, it’s common to ask how long they will need to do it for. With physical therapy, there is no standard answer to this question. It may take five sessions for a patient to improve their posture or get rid of their limp after a hip replacement surgery, while another patient who had the same procedure may need ten sessions or more.

Several factors come into play when devising the length of the needed physical therapy program. Every patient heals and recovers at different rates; every condition is different. Also, there will be variations in motivation and commitment among patients.

Typically, physical therapists would set goals throughout the rehabilitation program rather than setting dates. They help patients keep on track to achieve their physical therapy goals. When you make achievements and goals your focus and not fixate on time, you would be more inclined to reach your therapy goals.

However, keep in mind that rehab and therapy goals are not permanent. They can be changed and adjusted depending on a patient’s stages of recovery.

To reduce the number of sessions you need to take, make sure you are taking a proactive approach to your therapy program. Ask your physical therapist for exercises you can do at home to help with your recovery.

However, you should also be aware of the signs to make modifications to your treatment program or stop it altogether. Here are some of the indications that it may be time to reconsider your physical therapy approach:

  • You have achieved all the goals you and your physical therapist have initially set.

  • You don’t have pain anymore. 

  • You’re back to your normal level of functional mobility and activity.

  • Your progress has little to no change.

  • Your condition has worsened.

  • Your insurance company doesn’t cover the treatment.

When you experience any of those, make sure to discuss it with your physical therapist. If you haven’t been reaching your rehab and therapy goals, your physical therapist will need to re-evaluate your condition. He or she will check if you can shift to exercise programs that can be done at home to improve your condition, or if it’s time to refer you to different healthcare treatment.

In some unfortunate cases, physical therapy needs to come to an end because a patient’s insurance company does not cover it. Usually, you can reach out to your insurance company to advocate for the benefits you can get from getting this type of treatment.

However, some physical therapists work with patients who can’t afford treatment to arrange a more favorable payment schedule. Also, you can ask your physical therapist if you can have a discharge plan. This can allow you to continue doing recommended rehab and therapy at home on your own.

The length of your physical therapy treatment directly correlates to the progress of your improvement, or lack thereof. Whether you need one week or several months of rehab and therapy, or if you need to stop it altogether, you and your physical therapist will need to work together closely to determine the best answer. 

Physical Therapy Success Rates

Physical therapists are highly trained medical professionals. They dedicate their professional career to helping different types of patients restore their mobility and manage pain. Since physical therapy is an extremely patient-focused treatment approach, physical therapists need to develop a good rapport and patient-doctor partnership to help patients achieve their health goals.

According to the journal published by the Health Services Research in 2015, low back pain patients who sought physical therapy as their initial treatment option following a primary care consultation spent 50% lower in treatment costs.

Also, patients who started with a physical therapy program spent 72% lower in the first year of their treatment than if they have gotten advanced imaging or MRI referral. Physical therapy patients are less likely to need injections, medications, or even surgeries if they are diligent and committed to completing their therapy program.

Other treatment options such as surgery or injections, as well as advanced imaging or MRI, may only reinforce a patient’s concern or need to get additional care.

On the other hand, physical therapy helps encourage patients to be proactive in managing their condition and taking control of their recovery.

However, the decision to get physical therapy should be driven by the patient’s preferences and the doctor’s professional recommendation. Immediate surgery or medical procedure may be required if the patient is showing signs of chronic pain or excessive muscle weakness.

If you’re dealing with health issues that cause pain or are limiting you from doing daily and regular movements, a visit to the physical therapist may help. If you want to know if you are an excellent candidate to get physical therapy services, get a professional recommendation from your primary care physician.