What is Physical Therapy?

Physical therapy restores and improves motion in people’s lives. It can treat people of all ages, from newborn babies in an intensive care unit to middle-aged people with athletic injuries to older adults who suffer from mobility problems associated with aging.

Physical therapists are trusted health care professionals with extensive clinical experience who examine, diagnose, and then prevent or treat conditions that limit a person’s ability to move and function in daily life.

All physical therapists are required to have earned a graduate degree — either a master's or a clinical doctorate — from an accredited physical therapy program. They also must take a national licensure examination before they are allowed to practice.

Physical therapists may choose to team with a physical therapist assistant, an educated and licensed clinician working under the direction and supervision of the physical therapist, for components of care.

Physical therapy can address the following health problems and issues:

  • Neck and back injuries
  • Joint replacements
  • Fractures
  • Orthopedic injuries, both pre-operative and post-operative rehabilitation
  • Work injuries, including repetitive stress and trauma
  • Lymphedema
  • Sports Injuries, including sprains, strains, bone spurs, gait dysfunction, plantar fasciitis and throwing and running injuries

A patient’s first visit with a physical therapist should include an evaluation to identify current and potential problems. Based on the results, and considering the patient’s specific goals, the physical therapist will design a plan of care to include specific interventions and will propose a timetable to achieve these goals. A physical therapist will usually provide instructions for patients to perform exercises at home. The ultimate goal is to facilitate recovery and optimize movement and function.

Whatever the situation, physical therapists expertly blend science with inspiration to demonstrate how to prevent or manage a health condition and help motivate patients during their treatment. A physical therapist will work with patients to help them understand their body so they will achieve long-term health benefits.

What are its benefits?

There are many reasons patients see a physical therapist:

  • Physical therapy is restorative. Doctors often recommend physical therapy for patients who have been injured, have undergone surgery or have movement problems from an illness, disease or disability. To treat a problem or condition, physical therapists employ scientifically based treatments and techniques to relieve pain and to help patients resume daily activities.
  • Physical therapy is preventative. In many cases, physical therapy can help people avoid surgery or the need for long-term use of prescription medication. For patients who have undergone surgery, physical therapists can speed and ensure their recovery.
  • Physical therapy is individualized. Physical therapists assess each patient’s needs, and devise a customized program to assist them. A physical therapist can help prevent loss of mobility and motion by developing a fitness- and wellness-oriented program tailored to the patient’s specific needs.

The type and goals of physical therapy will be different for different people. For example, an older person who has had a stroke may simply want to dress or bathe without help. A physically active younger person may want to return to familiar exercise routines, such as running or playing tennis. Patients should feel comfortable asking a physical therapist any questions about course of care, including specifics regarding interventions and expectations. Physical therapists are partners in a patient’s journey to restore and maintain motion. They help patients regain mobility so they can function at their personal best.