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What to Expect When You Try Physical Therapy 


Their number one goal is to make you feel better; who wouldn’t want that?

Woman sitting on exercise bike being assisted by a physical therapist

A lot of people think of physical therapy as plain ol’ rehab, but it isn’t just for major injuries. A physical therapist, or PT, can also help prevent injuries from occurring, restore function in certain areas of the body, and improve performance, according to the American Physical Therapy Association. And physical therapy can even be a way to avoid prescription pain medication or surgery.

Basically, it’s a physical therapist’s job to look at your whole body and make sure it’s moving and working as efficiently and properly as possible. Which is why you shouldn’t put off a visit, even if you’re dealing with something as minor as seemingly a bit of neck pain or stiff hips from sitting at a desk all day. Here’s everything you need to know about getting the most out of seeing a PT.

How to Find the Right PT

First things first: You want to find a legit PT. All physical therapists should be licensed, Jasmine Marcus, a physical therapist in Ithaca, New York, says. On the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy website, you can verify any PT’s credential.

While you can get your doctor’s recommendation, do your own research to make sure your physical therapist has experience treating patients with similar conditions to yours, Dorothy Cohee, a doctor of physical therapy in Chicago, IL says. If you can’t determine that from online searches, call and ask. “For example, if you’re a runner dealing with a knee injury, ask the facility if they have a therapist that works with many runners,” she says.

You should also ask what a typical treatment will be like, Austin Misiura, a doctor of physical therapy (DPT) and owner of Pure Physical Therapy in Miami, FL, recommends. “Will you see the therapist every visit, or an aide or technician? Will the same PT treat you every visit? And the biggest tell would be the following: What type of treatment are they doing? Will you be doing mostly exercise, hands-on work, or laying down with passive modalities such as heat, ice, electrical stimulation, ultrasound, lasers etc.? The more active the treatment, the better,” he says, because those treatments will teach you how to move your body better and do certain tasks the right way.

How to Prepare

Before you head into the PT’s office, take note of your symptoms—more info is always better, and it’s not a bad idea to write things down so you don’t forget anything. Be prepared to describe all relevant symptoms in detail, Cohee says:¬ How and when did this injury occur? What symptoms do you have? What makes you feel better? What makes it worse? Do the symptoms linger? If so, for how long, and what makes it stop or diminish? From 0-10 what’s your pain level? What activities have you noticed this affects? Has it affected your sleep?

“Many times, I need to dig deep into the person's life for them to realize that the issue always happens on days that they drive a lot, or after they spend time bent over doing the dishes,” Misiura says. “If you can come to me with that information it saves us both time.” You should also bring a list of all current medications and be aware of your medical history.

And one last thing: “Dress appropriately,” Marcus says. If you’re seeing a physical therapist, you’re going to have to get physical. Be ready to expose the area that is being treated (like wearing shorts if you have knee pain), and wear workout clothes that make it easy to move.

What Happens During Your First Visit

Going to a PT is way less scary than, say, a dentist. Your initial visit is all about establishing a baseline. First, the physical therapist is going to ask all kinds of questions about your symptoms, Cohee says (that’s why you wrote them all down, remember?). They may also ask about your hobbies, your goals, your living situation, and your occupation to see how those affect your symptoms, Marcus says.

Your PT is also going to give you an initial exam. That starts with walking through the history of your condition, then “PTs will most likely test your range of motion, flexibility, strength, and do special tests to put stress on certain tissues that we feel may be involved in the problem,” Misiura says. “They should observe the skin and tissue for changes like redness or swelling, and will likely palpate specific muscles or ligaments for tenderness or tightness.”

Depending on what they find, they may check out areas of the body besides what’s bothering you, Cohee adds. “For example, someone may come to therapy for a shoulder injury and the therapist will likely assess the mid-back and maybe hips—the therapist knows stiffness in the mid back may contribute to shoulder limitations, and tightness in the hip may be preventing them to throw well because the hip doesn’t open up to its full potential.”

Then they’ll treat you (hurrah!). “Our therapeutic interventions include hands-on treatment and movement retraining, which are ways to learn better strategies for accomplishing daily tasks with less pain,” Misiura says.

What Comes Next?

Together, you and your PT are going to come up with your end goal. To do that, “think about how your injury or impairment is affecting your life,” Marcus says. “Your goal will usually be to get back to the same level of functioning you were at before the injury or to make sure you are even healthier than previously.” Once you’ve nailed that down, the PT will use their knowledge to figure out what is realistic depending on you, your history, and your current state.
To figure out the best treatment plan, you and your PT will decide how much you can do on your own and how much you’ll do together in the clinic, and how often you should ideally attend physical therapy, Marcus says.

Yes, you read that right: you’ll get homework, too. “They’ll likely give you a couple exercises to perform at home to instill what was worked on during the session,” Cohee says. “Those exercises
will help facilitate what is going to be built up in future sessions. And home exercises are constantly updated as you improve.” That homework could also include changing certain habits, like adjusting your desk set-up at work or making sure you change positions periodically while knitting, or even avoiding certain trigger activities.

And, really, all of this is for your benefit—even if some of the work may be annoying or uncomfortable. “We want to create independence for you, whether it be by teaching you how to properly stretch your hips so that you can squat with 300 pounds on your back, or show you how to fix your balance so that your risk and fear of falling is much less,” Misiura says. “Our goal really is to help you reach yours.”

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