Physical Therapy


Physical therapy is a group of treatments that helps patients restore strength or regain motion in the body following injury, surgery, or some diseases. A physical therapist is a person specially trained to evaluate needs for physical therapy and deliver the treatments.


A physical therapist helping a patient rebuild his strength after an injury. Physical therapists are health care professionals who can help patients increase or restore mobility and reduce pain, often without expensive and invasive surgery.

A physical therapist helping a patient rebuild his strength after an injury. Physical therapists are health care professionals who can help patients increase or restore mobility and reduce pain, often without expensive and invasive surgery.


It is difficult to say how many people receive physical therapy because the reasons for the therapy vary. Doctors from several specialties refer patients for conditions ranging from a mild sports injury to a stroke or traumatic brain injury. People of all age groups might have physical therapy, but athletes and others with injuries, people with musculoskeletal or neurological disease, and older adults require therapy more often than others. In particular, the number of older adults in the United States has grown faster than any other age group.



In general, physical therapy can help a person improve function, strength, and movement in the body. Often, completing physical therapy after an injury or other cause of physical problems can help a person avoid surgery. Physical therapy plans are geared toward each individual.


Individuals in physical therapy should follow instructions from the therapist and physicians regarding how to gradually improve movement and function. It is important to complete the entire course of physical therapy treatment. Participating in normal or athletic activities before being released to do so can result in reinjuring the area.


Parents can check with state agencies that license physical therapists, if there are any concerns about qualifications. In addition, some physical therapists specialize in working with children who have developmental disabilities or childhood conditions and injuries.


Many older people need physical therapy, and physical therapists understand the changes that occur in the body as people age. For example, muscle size and strength decrease, and bones can become less dense and more fragile, leading to osteoporosis. Seniors who are assigned physical therapy activities at home should carefully follow the instructions provided and not add large amounts of weight or intensity to their exercises without checking.

Pregnant or breastfeeding

Physical therapy can help ease pain and other physical issues in pregnancy related to the extra weight a pregnant woman carries and how it is distributed. Women should avoid exercising while lying on their backs after the first trimester of pregnancy. Pregnant women should follow the recommendations of their physical therapist and report any unusual pain or symptoms.

A medical condition in which bones become brittle and more likely to fracture, or break. It is most typical in elderly people.
Description of treatment in which the patient visits the hospital or facility for the appointment and then returns home (compared with inpatient, which involves staying in a hospital overnight).


It helps to make a list of questions about the therapy and to recall problems or symptoms that have led to the referral for physical therapy. Other observations that help the physical therapist plan therapy are noticing whether symptoms are worse at certain times of day and if resting makes pain or other symptoms better or worse. Taking a friend or family member along can help patients remember information on family health conditions. In addition, patients should ask questions during therapy and home instructions to be sure they understand completely how to safely and effectively follow up.


After each physical therapy visit, and even after completing therapy, patients should follow instructions carefully. Many of these instructions include precautions to avoid injury or pain. Further, completing recommended home exercises contributes to more rapid and complete recovery.


Physical therapy is not a risky treatment, especially if the patient and therapist communicate openly about symptoms and other factors in recovery. Patients who receive devices, such as canes or walkers, should carefully follow instructions about their use to promote healing and avoid injury. Some swelling and pain can occur as a side effect of treatment, but the problems usually are temporary. For example, if an athlete injures the shoulder joint, it might be immobilized for healing. Physical therapy helps the athlete regain movement and strength in the joint once it has healed, but the process can cause some pain until movement is restored.


Research and general acceptance

Physical therapy is a proven method to help people manage pain and restore movement or function. For example, research has shown that physical therapy can help manage pain and improve arm movement after women have surgery to treat breast cancer. Physical therapy is not the best or only treatment recommended for every condition or individual. For example, not every ankle sprain is the same, and physical therapy can help with some, but offer little advantage over home stretching and care in others. Much of the success of physical therapy depends on patient participation in, and compliance with, instructions. A person who does not follow through on recommended home stretching or exercises is unlikely to have as much success as someone who follows the physical therapist's directions.

Training and certification

Physical therapists complete special training on topics such as anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, and neurology. They first obtain a bachelor's degree and then attend a three-year program to receive a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree. Many also complete one-year residency programs in specialties, such as sports medicine, geriatric physical therapy, and others. All states require that physical therapists be licensed, and most also require that therapists take continuing education programs to keep their license and remain current in their practice.



O'Sullivan, Susan B., Thomas J. Schmitz, and George D. Fulk. Physical Rehabilitation. Philadelphia, PA: Davis Company, 2014.


De Groef, A., et al. “Effectiveness of Postoperative Physical Therapy for Upper-Limb Impairments after Breast Cancer Treatment: A Systematic Review.” Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation 96, no. 6 (June 2015): 1140–53.

Rhon, Daniel, and Julie Fritz “COMParative Early Treatment Effectiveness Between Physical Therapy and Usual Care for Low Back Pain (COMPETE): Study Protocol for a Randomized Controlled Trial.” Trials 16 (September 23, 2015): 423.


American Physical Therapy Association. “ABCs of Pediatric Physical Therapy.” . (accessed February 26, 2017).

American Physical Therapy Association. “Choosing Your Physical Therapist.” . (accessed February 26, 2017).

Bureau of Labor. “How To Become a Physical Therapist.” Occupational Outlook Handbook. (accessed February 26, 2017).

Preidt, Robert. “Study Casts Doubt on Need for Physical Therapy after Ankle Sprain.” HealthDay. (accessed February 26, 2017).


American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), 401 W. Michigan St., Indianapolis, IN, 46202-3233, (317) 637-9200, Fax: (317) 634-7817, .

American Physical Therapy Association, 1111 North Fairfax St., Alexandria, VA, 22314-1488, (703)684-2782, (800) 999-2782, Fax: (703) 684-7343, .

Teresa G. Odle, B.A., ELS

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.