Physiotherapy: benefits and how it can help

If a doctor has told you that physical therapy can help you and you’ve never done it before, you’re probably wondering what to expect from physical therapy.

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Physical therapy helps identify, treat and diagnose movement problems in people of all ages and abilities, says Anita Bemis-Dougherty, vice president of practice at the American Physical Therapy Association.

Conditions that can be helped by physiotherapy

Physiotherapy focuses on the muscles in your body and is often associated with treating pain caused by injury or to help with post-operative recovery. However, licensed physical therapists, or those working under them, actually treat a variety of conditions.

Here are some of the health conditions physiotherapy is used for and how it can help:

  • Arthritis. Physical therapy can improve mobility in the affected joint or joints.
  • Balance problems. The exercises used in physiotherapy can help you improve your balance and strengthen your muscles, which reduces the risk of falling.
  • Broken bones. Physiotherapy can help you regain mobility in the area where you broke a bone.
  • Cancer. Physiotherapy can help regain strength and speed healing, especially after cancer treatments like surgery.
  • Chronic headaches. Stretching and targeted massage relieve chronic headaches, especially tension headaches caused by tight muscles.
  • Parkinson’s disease. Physiotherapy helps maintain movement even as the disease progresses.
  • Pelvic floor problems such as urinary incontinence. With physical therapy, the pelvic floor muscles are strengthened to help control your bladder.
  • Sports injuries. Depending on the sports injury, physiotherapy aids in recovery and returns the patient to the sport of their choice.
  • Stroke. Assistance with walking, sitting, lying down, and moving between motor activities is part of physical therapy for many stroke patients.

Physiotherapy is performed by licensed physiotherapists and physiotherapy assistants. Some physiotherapists specialize in certain areas, such as wound management, pediatrics, or sports. It is possible to get physical therapy for chronic illnesses, as well as for more recent acute problems.

Benefits of physiotherapy

There are a few benefits associated with physiotherapy:

  • You can go back to doing activities you love that you have interrupted due to injury, pain or surgery, says Chris Tutt, CEO of ProActive Therapy Specialists in Portland, Oregon, and partner of Confluent Health.
  • You can prevent future pain and injury.
  • You may be able to avoid surgery and the use of prescription drugs. That includes addictive opioids, says Julie Lombardo, founder and CEO of Capitol Physical Therapy in Madison, Wisconsin, and partner at Confluent Health.
  • Your physical function, or movement, improves.
  • Your ability to move more freely helps you maintain your independence, such as not having to ask others for help when standing or walking.

Choose a physiotherapist

You may be referred for physical therapy by a doctor. It is also possible to request direct access to physical therapy yourself, although your state laws may place restrictions on the number of appointments you can have without a doctor’s referral.

Although many health insurance policies cover physiotherapy, check with your policy ahead of time for coverage. Some may require you to have a doctor’s referral for your care to be covered, says Lauren Lobert Frison, physical therapist and owner of APEX Physical Therapy in Brighton, Michigan.

You can compare physiotherapy clinics before starting treatment, and even take a tour if they offer it, to help you find the clinic that’s right for you. During your visit, you can also ask how many patients are being treated by a physiotherapist at the same time. It’s common to treat a few patients in the same hour, but you’ll get better care if the therapist limits the number of patients seen at one time, says Lobert Frison.

How to prepare for your first physiotherapy session

Your first physiotherapy appointment will probably go a little easier if you take a few minutes to prepare for it. Here are some tips to prepare yourself.

  • In the days leading up to your appointment, write down any symptoms you have related to the reason for your physical therapy. Some questions to consider: What makes your pain or physical problem worse? What makes it better? Can you describe the pain? Is the pain worse at a certain time of the day?
  • If you can, complete all paperwork ahead of time, advises physical therapist John Reddon of Teton Therapy in Riverton, Wyoming.
    If your first session lasts an hour and you need 15 minutes to complete your paperwork,
    you reduce the time the therapist has to learn more about your problem.
  • Bring a list of all medications you use, including over-the-counter supplements and treatments. This is valuable for the physical therapist to consider. Also bring your photo ID and insurance card.
  • If you have imaging results related to your injury or problem, such as x-rays, bring them with you.
  • Wear comfortable clothes so you can move around and so the physiotherapist can touch the treatment area. Shorts, sweatpants, or shirts that you can easily move around in are best. Now is not the time to wear your skinny jeans, Reddon says.

What to expect during your first physiotherapy session

Your first physical therapy session is an initial assessment to help the physical therapist get to know you and your problem better. This will usually take place in a private area of ​​the clinic, not in the open setting with equipment and tables that are common in many physiotherapy practices.

During the evaluation, expect your physical therapist to ask you questions about your condition, medical history and current symptoms, says Lobert Frison.

Common tests a physical therapist will use during the initial assessment include:

  • Balance.
  • Flexibility.
  • Range of motion.
  • Strength test.
  • Walking, like watching your posture and gait when you walk.

All of this gives the physiotherapist information to develop a treatment plan. If there is time, you can start treatment at your first appointment. Your therapist may also suggest exercises you can do at home, such as stretches that target your area of ​​concern.

Follow-up appointment

Some people expect their physical therapy sessions to simply be exercises that they do for the duration of treatment, Reddon says. However, this is usually not the case. Don’t expect to do just an hour of exercises while you dive deeper into physical therapy, says Reddon.

As the staff at the physiotherapy clinic begin your treatment, there is a wide range of treatments and techniques they will use to help you feel better. These treatments and techniques include:

  • Personalized exercises that target your area of ​​concern and help improve function and reduce pain.
  • Training in proper body mechanics and posture. This helps you learn to put less strain on your muscles and ligaments to prevent future injury, Tutt says. This can include learning better ways to lift or bend forward, for example. Education can also include physical changes outside of physical therapy. For example, you can discuss how to install the desk in your office for better ergonomics.
  • Electrical stimulation which can help improve circulation and reduce pain.
  • Heat or ice used on your treatment area.
  • Muscle stretch.
  • Soft tissue mobilization, a hands-on technique where the therapist will work with your muscles and the tissues around them. A therapist can use a hand-held instrument to help treat muscles during soft tissue mobilization.
  • Trigger point dry needling, which involves the use of thin, dry needles used through the skin in muscle areas to help relieve tension and reduce pain, says Lombardo.

It is not uncommon for physiotherapy clinics to schedule several appointments each week – usually two to three appointments – for you when you begin treatment. There are several reasons for this. More frequent appointments help you get better, faster. They also give the physical therapist a chance to target any new irritation that has occurred in the treatment area over the previous days, Reddon says.
The actual number of appointments you need will depend on your exact needs, but a general range is 8 to 14 total appointments for non-surgical conditions and 20 visits for post-surgical conditions, Lombardo says. It’s also possible to have a session every other month if you’ve recovered from a problem and just need a boost to reach or maintain your goals, says Tutt.

3 tips for getting the most out of physiotherapy

Over time, and perhaps the financial commitment, involved in your physiotherapy, you will want to do everything you can to get the most out of your sessions. Here are some tips to maximize your physiotherapy:

  1. Keep your appointments. Frequent physical therapy sessions can be challenging from a scheduling perspective, but these more frequent appointments are meant to get you better faster. Ultimately, more frequent appointments can save you the cost and headache of new surgery or new medication.
  2. Do your homework. You may not get a grade for this type of assignments, but you will still get the end result of better physical function. Follow the home practice recommended by your physical therapist as best you can.
  3. Understand what you are doing and why you are doing it. This helps you “stick” to your physical therapy, Reddon says. This will further motivate you to continue with your therapy.


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Richard V. Johnson