What is physical therapy?

Physical therapy is one of the lesser-known specialties in health care. For the most part, when someone thinks of physical therapy, they envision someone middle aged or older, likely recovering from a knee replacement surgery or dealing with chronic back pain. During an evaluation, I invariably as my clients, “Do you know what physical therapy is, and how it is supposed to help you?”

When someone does answer that question, they are usually able to say, “It’s exercising.” That is true, but it is exercise in a capacity different from what goes on at the gym. Physical therapy, as its name suggests, uses therapeutic exercise to treat musculoskeletal impairments. Put simply, a physical therapist will prescribe specific, targeted exercises to improve how a person moves. The goal of this depends on what the client tells us; the goal may be to reduce pain, get stronger, or become more active.

Physical therapists may also use a modality known as manual therapy, which involves hands-on interventions. The physical therapist can apply manual resistance, stretching, joint mobilizations, or provide cuing for correct exercise performance. Again, this intervention is directed towards allowing the client to achieve his desired goals.

Home exercise programs are a crucial part of success in physical therapy. Once the therapist has determined a client’s goals and what interventions are necessary to reach them, she will provide therapeutic exercises to be done on a regular basis outside of formal sessions. The reason for this is: muscles require two weeks of consistent input to change movement patterns. One to two visits per week does not provide the necessary input to do this. Those visits provide the therapist a chance to monitor progress and update the home exercises as necessary. The exercises that are part of the home program are typically less dynamic than what you will perform when in session and under therapist supervision.

Many clients want to know, “how long will it take to get better?” The answer is: it depends. The moving parts of this equation include: how long this has been going on, if you are compliant with your home exercises and therapist’s activity recommendations, your age, and overall level of health. Your therapist will be able to give you a general answer to this question at the end of your evaluation, but remember, a large part of it depends on client accountability to a home exercise program.

If you have questions as to how physical therapy can assist you in reaching your activity goals, please reach out to Dr. Kopko. She is here to get you moving again.

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