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Physical Therapy: What You Need to Know

Whether you have been involved in a car accident, suffered a stroke, delivered a baby, or you're just experiencing the effects of aging, your body may not be the fine-tuned machine it once was—this is where physical therapy can help.

"The goal is to determine what is interfering with a person's function while also reducing pain, enhancing mobility, and ultimately improving patients' quality of life."

"Physical therapy focuses on functional movement," explains Jodi Hirata, a physical therapist at Cedars-Sinai.

"The goal is to determine what is interfering with a person's function while also reducing pain, enhancing mobility, and ultimately improving patients' quality of life."

Physical therapy basics

Physical therapy aims to restore or maintain physical function and mobility.

We often think of physical therapy for orthopaedic injuries like knee or hip surgeries, but it's useful in a wide range of situations. Physical therapy can help ease the side effects of cancer treatment and manage postpartum pain, as well as address injuries among athletes and improve chronic pain. 

"If you're having trouble completing your grocery shopping, or you can't reach overhead to put items in a cabinet, that's when it's time to ask, 'What has changed?' and work with a physical therapist to figure out how you can get back to your baseline," says Jodi.

Physical therapy goals differ based on the condition you're managing. Here's a sampling of some common types of physical therapy:

  • Orthopaedic: Designed for people who are suffering from musculoskeletal injuries that may be related to a car accident, sports, a fall, or other high-impact event or surgery. It may also be due to repetitive movement injuries or simply changes due to aging.
  • Neurologic: Improves function for people who have a stroke, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), among other neurological conditions.
  • Vestibular: Aims to treat balance and dizziness issues that arise from inner ear conditions and other possible sources. 
  • Cancer: Addresses functional changes that occur during cancer treatment, which may cause fluid to accumulate in the limbs or other areas of the body (called lymphedema). Physical therapy can help to reduce the swelling and pain that results from lymphedema while also improving movement and function.
  • Pelvic floor: Focuses on reducing pelvic pain, addressing incontinence, and strengthening pelvic floor muscles for people who have undergone surgery, experienced trauma, or for women who have delivered a baby, as well as other causes. 

What to expect at physical therapy

Physical therapists are licensed professionals who understand human anatomy and physiological functioning. As part of your healthcare team, they're specially trained to evaluate physical abnormalities and restore function and mobility. 

During the course of physical therapy, your physical therapist will:

  • Take a complete medical history and evaluate your condition, including posture, flexibility, strength, and range of motion
  • Develop a care plan, including goals of treatment 
  • Provide physical therapy treatment and interventions based on your function and goals
  • Teach you exercises and self-care strategies you can do at home  

Seeing a physical therapist

To see a physical therapist, you usually need a referral from a licensed medical professional, such as a physician, nurse practitioner, or physician's assistant.

After the evaluation, the physical therapist communicates with the referring practitioner to share the plan of care, goals, and frequency and duration to complete care.

As a noninvasive therapeutic technique, physical therapy can help relieve pain and improve quality of life—and it's appropriate for almost every age and disease state.