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Explainer: What Is Physical Therapy?

PT – the art of restoring and improving physical human function – can address pain, tightness, weakness, balance deficits and decreased endurance.

Patient gets help using a green resistance band

You have probably seen physical therapists (PTs) at work on the sidelines of professional sporting events, tending to athletes on the fly. Or maybe you’ve witnessed their therapeutic techniques through the window-walls of a modern sports medicine facility. 

But physical therapy isn’t just for elite athletes. This therapeutic specialty can help people of all ages and stages get back in the game.

Licensed physical therapists are experts in  the human movement system and how to counter its limitations.They use education, exercise, stretches, hands-on manual therapy and therapeutic agents called modalities (ice, heat, electric stimulation) to help a patient move, reduce or manage pain and prevent disability, according to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA).

“Physical therapy is an art of restoring and improving physical human function,” said Doctor of Physical Therapy Matthew Allen. “Someone might need physical therapy if they are experiencing any issue that is limiting them physically. The most common examples are pain, tightness, weakness, balance deficits and decreased endurance.”

But it doesn’t stop there, Allen said. Physical therapy is not just a remedy for pain and discomfort. PT can help a person learn to move properly so that they can keep doing their favorite activities.

Interested? Here is what to expect when headed to your first appointment.

Erica Fritz Eannucci, a physical therapist at New York City’s Hospital for Special Surgery, explained what to expect:  A PT will:

  • review the history of your current condition
  • talk about your goals
  • perform objective measurements to assess your strength, range of motion, balance and integrity of ligaments
  • diagnose the cause of your symptoms
  • recommend a tailored exercise and stretching program

Afterwards, expect a few visits a week, either at an office or in your home, for treatment sessions to execute on the program, Allen said. If you’re in the United States, you’ll want to understand how your insurance plan covers physical therapy visits. The American Physical Therapy Association offers this guide on insurance coverage.

You’ll have the best possible results if you keep up with the program long after your appointments are over, he said.

“While everyone is busy and wants a quick fix, you have to do your homework. Physical therapy depends heavily on people doing their home exercise program,” Allen said. 

To see physical therapy in action, watch this video.