If you don’t know what to expect, you may feel nervous about the idea of getting physical therapy. It’s normal to worry about seeing a new health care professional. But to get a better idea of what to expect and how you can get the most benefit from your treatment, please read on. The potential benefits of physical therapy far outweigh any fears you may have.
Overview of Physical Therapy
A physical therapist (PT) is a highly educated and licensed health care professional who can expertly guide you through preventing or recovering from an illness, injury, or surgery.
If you are having pain or difficulty moving and going about your daily activities, perhaps following an illness, sports-related injury, or accident, your doctor may refer you to a physical therapist.
At your first visit, your physical therapist will discuss your specific situation and build a plan tailored to help you strengthen and heal your body.
According to the American Physical Therapy Association, PT sessions have three components:
- Assessment and examination
- Implementation of a treatment plan
The therapist will continue to use all these components throughout your treatment process.
What is the physical therapy assessment and examination?
Your first visit will start with a very thorough examination. The therapist starts by asking you questions about your condition. You need to be honest and open with your PT so that your treatment plan can be the most effective.
You will cover questions such as:
- Where are you feeling pain?
- What is the level of pain?
- What is your health history?
The next step will involve you getting up and moving. You will be evaluated on your:
- Range of motion
- Skin integrity
- Muscle function
This is not a pass or fail exam. Your PT is learning how your condition affects your daily life and activities. Part of your exam might also involve the PT taking your blood pressure and using his or her hands to assess where you are having pain. The PT may palpate and move you through various motions to assess the state of your joints, muscles, and tissues.
Tip: Make sure to wear comfortable clothes that you can move freely in. Your therapist may want to be able to see the area where you are feeling discomfort. Wear short sleeves if you have shoulder or arm pain. Wear shorts if you are experiencing pain in your legs.
What is the physical therapy diagnosis process?
Your PT will help to determine a diagnosis and then work in concert with your doctor as part of your health care team.
You will set goals together with your PT for your physical therapy sessions. Most physical therapists will focus on helping you return to a better quality of life. You may need to focus on:
- Reducing pain
- Restoring mobility
- Regaining daily function
Your PT will help you to understand what is happening with your condition and how your treatment plan will work. With their guidance, you should understand what you need to do to reach your goals.
Tip: Ask lots of your own questions. You will be able to achieve better outcomes if you understand what is happening with your body.
What therapies may be in the treatment plan?
Once you have completed the examination and have a treatment plan in place, it is time to start working. Your therapist may choose to use a variety of activities during your session.
Therapeutic modalities are different techniques that can help you gain strength, comfort, and mobility. Your PT may need to improve your blood flow, help with flexibility, reduce swelling, increase relaxation, or manage your pain levels.
Your therapist may use:
- Electrical stimulation
- Dry needling
Talk to your PT and make sure you understand how these therapies can help you. Ask what you will experience and what results to expect.
Massage and mobilization
Your treatment plan may involve hands-on joint and soft tissue massage and mobilization. The therapist may knead and massage the soft tissue to relieve pain and promote blood flow. Your joints and muscles may be moved through various stretches by the therapist to increase your range of motion and flexibility.
The foundation of your treatment plan will be exercise. Your PT will walk you through specific stretches and exercises that are meant to help you move and feel better.
You might use state-of-the-art equipment, or simple workout equipment like bikes and treadmills. Your PT will oversee all the exercises that you do during your session. You may also work with a physical therapy assistant.
You will be given a set of exercises to do at home. These at-home exercises are used to help you heal faster. You may not see your PT daily, but when you are completing the at-home exercises you will see better results. Your PT will discuss with you how often you should do your at-home exercises.
Tip: Show up for your therapy sessions ready to give it your best. Ask your PT for hints on how to manage discomfort. It is important to understand from your PT what to expect as part of the natural healing process.
Your physical therapist will establish with you how often and how long you will need treatment. The first few sessions are often the hardest as your body adapts to new movements.
Be prepared to celebrate your successes as you go along. Recovery may take months or years, but you should see a difference every week. Take time to give yourself a pat on the back!