In physical therapy, also known as PT, trained professionals evaluate and treat abnormal physical function related to an injury, disability, or other health condition.
According to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), physical therapists are trained and licensed movement experts. They can diagnose and treat a range of injuries, disabilities, and health conditions.
Physical therapists aim to improve a person’s range of movement and quality of life and prevent further injury or disability.
Licensed physical therapists work in a range of healthcare settings, including outpatient offices, private practices, hospitals, rehabilitation centers, nursing homes, home health, sports and fitness settings, schools, hospices, occupational settings, government agencies, and research centers.
A physical therapist helps take care of patients in all phases of healing, from initial diagnosis to restorative and preventive stages of recovery. Physical therapy may be a standalone option, or it may support other treatments.
Some patients are referred to a physical therapist by a doctor, while others seek therapy themselves.
According to the World Confederation for Physical Therapy, a physical therapist receives training that enables them to:
- conduct a physical exam and evaluation of a person’s movement, flexibility, muscle and joint motion, and performance, including finding out about their health history
- give a clinical diagnosis, prognosis, and plan of care with short- and long-term goals
- perform physical therapy treatment and intervention
- give self-management recommendations, including exercises a person can do at home
Apart from physical manipulation, physical therapy treatment may involve:
- Iontophoresis: This uses an electrical current to deliver certain medications, such as topical steroids. This can decrease the presence of inflammation.
- Electrical stimulation (e-stim): There are two types of e-stim. Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation reduces pain. By contrast, neuromuscular electrical stimulation works to stimulate muscular motor units to improve muscular engagement.
- Heat, moist heat, and cold therapy: These may provide benefits to a range of conditions.
- Light therapy: This involves using special lights and lasers to treat certain medical conditions.
Physical therapists can provide supplementary treatment to a wide variety of medical conditions, depending on their specialty.
Although physical therapists may not directly and independently treat the medical condition other than pure musculoskeletal conditions, they work to optimize recovery or educate a person on how to optimize their movement patterns.
Some conditions that could benefit from physical therapy are:
- cardiopulmonary conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cystic fibrosis, and post-myocardial infarction heart failure
- conditions that affect the hand, such as carpal tunnel syndrome and trigger finger
- musculoskeletal dysfunction, including back pain, rotator cuff tears, and temporomandibular joint disorders
- neurological conditions, such as stroke, spinal cord injuries, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, vestibular dysfunction, and traumatic brain injuries
- pediatric conditions, including cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy
- sports-related injuries, such as concussion and tennis elbow
- female health and pelvic floor dysfunction, including urinary incontinence and lymphedema
- skin conditions or injuries, such as burns, wound care, and diabetic ulcers
Depending on the reason for treatment, the benefits of physical therapy may include:
- pain management with reduced need for opioids
- avoiding surgery
- improved mobility and movement
- recovery from injury or trauma
- recovery from stroke or paralysis
- fall prevention
- improved balance
- management of age-related medical problems
A sports therapist can help an athlete maximize their performance by strengthening specific parts of the body and using muscles in new ways.
A physical therapist or other healthcare professional can advise individuals about the benefits specific to their personal medical history and their need for treatment.
There are many types of physical therapy, and therapists often choose to specialize. These types include:
- Orthopedic physical therapy: This treats musculoskeletal injuries, involving the muscles, bones, ligaments, fascia, and tendons. It is suitable for conditions such as fractures, sprains, tendinitis, bursitis, chronic health problems, and rehabilitation or recovery from orthopedic surgery. Patients may undergo treatment with joint mobilizations, manual therapy, strength training, mobility training, and other modalities.
- Geriatric physical therapy: This can help older adults who develop conditions that affect their mobility and physical function, including arthritis, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s disease, hip and joint replacement, balance disorders, and incontinence. This type of intervention aims to restore mobility, reduce pain, and increase physical fitness levels.
- Neurological physical therapy: This can help people with neurological conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease, brain injury, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injury, and stroke. Treatment may aim to increase limb responsiveness, improve movement patterns, manage
tone, improve strength, and promote balance.
- Cardiovascular and pulmonary rehabilitation: This can benefit people affected by some cardiopulmonary conditions and surgical procedures. Treatment can increase muscular and cardiovascular endurance and stamina.
- Wound care therapy: This can help ensure that a healing wound is receiving adequate oxygen and blood by way of improved circulation. Physical therapy may include the use of manual therapies, e-stim, compression therapy, and wound care.
- Vestibular therapy: This aims to treat balance problems that can result from inner ear conditions. Vestibular physical therapy involves a number of exercises and manual techniques that can help patients regain their balance and coordination.
- Decongestive therapy: This can help drain accumulated fluid in patients with lymphedema and other conditions that involve fluid accumulation.
- Pelvic floor rehabilitation: This can help treat conditions that affect the pelvic floor, such as urinary or fecal incontinence, or urinary urgency and pelvic pain as a result of injuries or surgery or because of certain conditions.
Pediatric physical therapy aims to diagnose, treat, and manage conditions that affect infants, children, and adolescents. Such conditions may include:
- developmental delays
- cerebral palsy
- spina bifida
- other conditions that impact the musculoskeletal system
Pediatric physical therapists work to improve mobility, alleviate pain, develop or restore function, and prevent or decrease permanent physical disabilities.
They work closely with children and their families and caregivers to improve a child’s ability to function independently and actively at home and at school.
Finding a suitable physical therapist can involve a number of factors, including insurance acceptance, specialty and reason for treatment, and geographical location.
Insurance companies often have lists of physical therapy locations that participate in specific health plans. Other healthcare professionals may have a list of therapists in the area whom they recommend.
Another way to find a physical therapist is to look online or access the APTA Find a PT web-based tool.
For a person to practice as a physical therapist in the United States, they need to earn a doctor of physical therapy degree and pass a state licensure exam.
Physical therapists study areas that include:
- cellular histology
- exercise physiology
- behavioral sciences
- cardiovascular studies
- pulmonary, endocrine, metabolic, and musculoskeletal studies
Physical therapists can specialize in fields such as:
- cardiovascular and pulmonary health
- clinical electrophysiology
- health for older adults
- neurology, orthopedics, pediatrics, and sports physical therapy
Physical therapy can be very beneficial for people with certain injuries, disabilities, or other health conditions.
For more information on the benefits of physical therapy, a person should speak with a physical therapist or another healthcare professional.