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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 arthritis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Physical therapy may be used alone or with other
physical therapist will examine you and talk to you about your symptoms and your daily activity. He or she will then work with you on a
treatment plan. The goals are to help your joints move better and to restore or increase
your flexibility, strength, endurance, coordination, and/or balance.
First, your therapist will try to reduce your pain and swelling. Your physical therapist also may use
manual therapy, education, and techniques such as
heat, cold, water, ultrasound, and electrical stimulation.
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 therapists are board-certified in areas such as orthopedics, sports, and neurology and may offer more specialized care. Physical therapists can also specialize in certain types of care, such as:
Here are some questions to think about before you choose a
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
Learning about physical therapy:
Types of treatment:
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 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.
Also, 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
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 (sometimes called bodywork) is a general term
for treatment performed mostly with the hands. The goals of manual therapy include relaxation, decreased pain, and
Manual therapy can include:
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,
Other treatments include:
Physical therapy can help you recover from an injury
and avoid future injury. Your physical therapist can help you reduce pain in the soft tissues (muscles, tendons,
and ligaments), build muscle
strength, and improve flexibility, function, and range of motion. He or she 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.
Physical therapy can help you live more easily with chronic or ongoing
health conditions such as spinal stenosis, arthritis, and Parkinson's disease. Your physical therapist will work with you to establish your
goals. Then he or she will create a program of educational, range-of-motion, strengthening,
and endurance activities to meet your needs.
Some conditions involve several body
systems and can lead to significant disability. These conditions—such as
stroke, spinal cord injury, and major cardiopulmonary (heart and
lung) problems—are usually addressed by a team of health professionals through programs such as cardiac rehab and stroke rehab. The
team can include doctors; nurses; physical, occupational, and speech
therapists; psychologists; and social workers, among others.
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.
Physical therapists also work with children who have
major injuries or health conditions, such as cerebral palsy. 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
Other Works Consulted
American Physical Therapy Association (2012). Who are physical therapists? Available online:
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.
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.
U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics
(2012-2013). Physical therapists. In Occupational Outlook Handbook. Available online: http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physical-therapists.htm.
Current as of:
June 4, 2014
Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine & Joan Rigg, PT, OCS - Physical Therapy
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