What to Expect From Physical Therapy
Published September 2019
Injury, surgery, medical conditions and age can affect the way your body moves. When this happens, physical therapy (PT) can help you reach your functional mobility goals — and help you prevent injury.
“In the orthopaedic community, PT is a big part of recovery after substantial or chronic injuries,” says Northwestern Medicine Orthopaedic Surgeon Aaron A. Bare, MD. “Patients need PT to heal properly and recover with minimal complications.”
Who Can Benefit From Physical Therapy
If injury, illness or age have prevented you from moving your body safely, effectively and without pain, then physical therapy can help you get back on track.
“Whether you’ve had a stroke or suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome, I can’t stress this enough: Go to physical therapy,” adds Dr. Bare. “It’s for anyone who wants to work toward their highest level of function under professional supervision.”
What to Expect in Physical Therapy
Physical therapy starts with an evaluation, during which your physical therapist will assess your overall functional mobility. This includes:
After this evaluation, you, your physical therapist and your physician will work together to come up with your mobility goals and develop a plan for reaching them. This plan will be unique to you and your lifestyle. It may involve both one-on-one appointments in a “gym-like” facility, or clinical setting like a hospital or outpatient facility, and/or exercises you can do at home.
Physical therapy also teaches you how to safely move your body to prevent injury.
Activities in Physical Therapy
Depending on your goals and abilities, physical therapy can take a variety of forms. Physical therapy commonly involves one or more of the following:
- Working on activities of daily living
- Balance and gait training
- Heat and cold therapy and massage
- Muscle retraining
- Pain management strategies
- Exercises to improve strength, flexibility, range of motion and mobility
The Difference Between Physical and Occupational Therapy
Physical therapy and occupational therapy often work in tandem with one main difference: Physical therapy focuses on improving the movement of the body, whereas occupational therapy focuses on improving your ability to perform activities of daily living.
For example, if you sustained an injury to your spine, physical therapy would help you regain the ability to move your spine in all six directions and help eliminate pain. Occupational therapy would help you resume your daily activities, such as dressing yourself, cooking a meal, driving and any activity that is important to you.
The Difference Between Physical Therapy and Exercise
“Physical therapy and exercise go hand-in-hand,” says Dr. Bare. “However, PT is goal-oriented and typically involves improving function in targeted areas of the body.”
For example, if you tore your rotator cuff and had orthopaedic surgery to repair it, your physical therapist will work with you and your surgeon to create an exercise program that helps improve the movement, strength and function of your rotator cuff. If you enjoy playing softball, your physical therapist will take this into account and incorporate exercises with resistance bands that activate the muscles you use to throw a ball.
Your physical therapist may also tell you what your current limitations are. After rotator cuff surgery, you should not attempt to lift your arms overhead for at least six weeks. Your physical therapist will measure your improvement and track your progress along the way.
How to Decide When Physical Therapy Should End
It’s up to you and your physical therapist to decide whether to continue once you’ve reached your functional mobility goals.
“It takes six to eight weeks for soft tissue to heal, which is why I typically advise patients to do physical therapy for this amount of time after orthopaedic surgery or injury,” says Dr. Bare. “However, physical therapists are also great counselors for continuing exercise after injury or surgery to ensure that you’re moving in a way that’s safe for your body to prevent re-injury.”