What is Physical Therapy? How Can It Help Me?

February 13th, 2017 Becki Andrus

Physical Therapy 101

Doctors recommend physical therapy for a variety of conditions. When prescribed in combination with other treatments, these programs can help speed recovery and are beneficial components of a holistic approach to health.

Physical Therapy Basics

When you have pain, an injury or a chronic condition, regular movement and daily tasks can be difficult. Freedom is restricted, and independence may be lost for a period of time. A rehabilitation program designed to strengthen weak muscles, stretch tight connective tissue and build stamina may be recommended to restore your body and allow you to return to the lifestyle you previously enjoyed.

According to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), these programs have “widespread clinical applications in the restoration, maintenance, and promotion of optimal physical function.” When used alone or as part of a larger treatment approach, therapy for your body promotes:

• Muscle restoration
• Improved tissue function
• Better range of motion
• Stronger balance

These goals are practical and functional, and the programs include many different techniques to promote recovery. Some therapists provide general help for common problems. Others specialize in targeted treatments for specific conditions.

Conditions Requiring Rehabilitation

It’s common to associate physical treatment programs with recovery from serious injuries or surgery, but there are many conditions for which these programs show promise. You may not realize your health issues can be helped with a physical approach. Even some apparently simple conditions often accepted as inevitable can get better with the right combination of treatments.

Programs for strength and movement may be prescribed for:

• Chronic diseases
• Chronic pain
• Concomitant effects of cancer, heart disease and similar ailments
• Congenital diseases
• General pain management
• Inflammatory conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis
Nerve pain
• Neuromuscular disorders
Overuse injuries, including carpal tunnel syndrome
• Pain in specific areas of the body
• Post-surgical recovery
Spinal cord injury
• Sports injuries
• Stroke recovery
• Traumatic injury

Doctors will likely bring up the subject of a physical treatment program in the event of trauma or an acute condition, but don’t hesitate to ask about what such a program could do for other issues. Chronic pain can be especially limiting and is all the more frustrating given it tends to be an “invisible” condition other people have a hard time understanding. If you’re suffering from any problems making it hard to get the most out of life, starting a treatment program with a qualified practitioner of physical medicine could give you the tools to reclaim your freedom.

physical therapy

What to Expect

If your doctor determines a physical treatment program is right for you, he or she will refer you to a therapist with the proper training to work with your condition. You can also look for your own therapist on the APTA website or get recommendations from family and friends. You must be comfortable with the practitioner you choose, because you’ll be working with the same person for an average of six to 12 sessions. Select someone with whom you can maintain an easy partnership and clear communication throughout the duration of your program.

On your first visit, the therapist will:

• Take your medical history
• Ask questions about your condition
• Assess the severity of the problem
• Perform tests to determine your current level of strength and range of motion
• Look for the root cause of your pain if it’s unknown

These evaluations form the basis of a treatment program designed specifically for you. This often involves more than one type of physical treatment, and you may need assistance, such as a wheelchair or crutches, to help you move around until you become stronger.

You may be given exercises to do on your own a certain number of times per day, and it’s important to follow these instructions. Your therapist can modify the program over time, increasing the difficulty of the exercises or adding weights as you get stronger.

Types of Treatments

Physical medicine is able to treat so many different conditions because of its versatility. Therapists know how to design programs combining the right types of treatments to aid healing and move you toward recovery.

Manual therapy, also called bodywork, is a common treatment. Massage, mobilization and manipulation are used to address pain and tension in muscles, connective tissue and joints. Some practitioners are skilled in decongestive lymphatic drainage, a massage technique to reduce inflammation by addressing problems with the flow of lymph fluid.

Other treatments often used include ultrasound, electrical stimulation and low-level laser therapy to promote healing in muscles and connective tissue. Functional electrical stimulation may be used to improve muscle function after an injury.

Exercise is part of many physical treatment programs. Your therapist may prescribe stretches, strength training, walking, light cardiovascular exercise or water exercises to address and correct physical limitations.

physical therapy treatment

Benefits of Working with a Physical Therapist

Once you begin working with a specialist to improve your physical condition, you may experience:

• Less stress on joints and tension in muscles
• Increased strength, stability and stamina
• Reduced pain and inflammation
• Better blood and lymph flow
• Greater range of motion
• Easier management of chronic conditions
• More daily independence

Following a treatment program may also make it possible to avoid surgery in certain cases and can reduce the need for strong painkillers, saving you from unwanted side effects.

Since both pain and injury can cause imbalances in the body, your therapist will work to address these issues and the subconscious corrections you’ve been making to compensate. This promotes proper healing and can prevent permanent damage in the case of severe injuries or trauma.

The type of therapy you need and how many sessions your doctor recommends will vary depending on the nature of your condition. Stay in close contact with your doctor, your physical therapist and other members of your health team throughout the treatment program to ensure you get the full benefit from every session. It might seem difficult at times, but sticking with your schedule can help you make a full recovery or manage a chronic condition and provide a better quality of life.


  1. I like your tip to find a physical therapist that you can have clear communication with. It’s important that you feel comfortable discussing some of your concerns you have or any changes you may be experiencing with your physical health. That way, not only with your physical therapist be better able to ease some of your concerns by providing you with answers, they also will be more able to give you the therapy you need to help you recover.

  2. It’s good to see that physical therapy can help improve your balance while restoring muscle function. My mother-in-law has been having a harder time moving around, and I’m sure she could really use these benefits you listed. Are there therapists that offer in-home physical therapy treatments for my mother-in-law since she has a hard time driving?

  3. My wife used to love playing tennis but she mildly injured he shoulder a few years back affecting her mobility. She originally didn’t think it would be a big deal but now the condition still keeps her from playing. I like what you said about how physical therapy can help conditions as complex as a chronic condition as well as just improving range of motion. I think anyone who is physically limited or in pain would be smart to find a hospital that provides physical therapy.

  4. I thought it was interesting that you mention how physical therapy can help with better blood and lymph flow. My dad is looking to find a professional chiropractor to work on his lower back. I think I will talk to him about how it can also help with his blood.

  5. You mentioned that exercise is a significant part of physical therapy that’s why some stretches and cardiovascular exercises are given to a PT’s patient. That sounds perfect for my father since he’s been having a few issues with his health here and there, thus maybe with a bit of exercise and regular consultation with a PT would help him recover. Additionally, it would be good for my own mental health too to see my father as healthy as he was before again. Thanks for the helpful read about what physical therapy can do!

  6. Thanks for helping me learn more about physical therapy. I didn’t know that this could actually help with chronic pain. I’m curious to learn if the treatment should be ongoing for this pain, or if it’s possible that this can only help make some type of pain go away.

  7. That graphic about the different types of treatment really helped me understand there’s a lot of variety in physical therapy! I especially liked how you pointed out that massage techniques can help reduce inflammation by targeting where lymph fluid is lacking. My brother is about to go into a center for physical therapy, and I will pass this along to him so he can better prepare!

  8. It was great to know that a physical therapist will work on the pain and injury that causes an imbalance in the body and promote healing and recovery while preventing permanent damage. That sounds nice. I will surely suggest this to my younger brother as he has been injured during the last sports meet in his school. Since he wants to recover fully soon, I think physical therapy is what he needs. Thanks!

  9. My favorite part of this article is when you mentioned that exercise is part of many physical treatment programs. It’s cool to think that when you are exercising, you are not only getting a fit and lean body, but it’s treating you as well. I am not aware that I’ve been doing a therapy and treating some minor body pains with it. Thanks for this very informative post.

  10. I really do like it when you said that physical therapy allows the body to heal better because the injury, as well as the incorrect pain management, will be fixed. This is the reason why my friend has been eyeing physical therapy. She has been inflicted with a pain in the hips that she can’t get rid of. Anyway, she mentioned something like an aquatic physical therapy. I wonder if those two are the same. Anyway, I will just support her.

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