What to Expect When Working with a Physical Therapist

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Recovering from an injury or surgery, or just trying to avoid one? Then a physical therapy appointment might be just what you need.

A physical therapist is a licensed medical professional trained to diagnose physical abnormalities and restore and maintain physical function and mobility. What’s not to like?

Licensed physical therapists can be found in private practices, hospitals, outpatient offices, rehab centers, schools, hospices, nursing homes, sports and fitness centers, government agencies — really just about anywhere you look.

Making Your Physical Therapy Appointment

There are two questions to ask yourself before you make your physical therapy appointment:

  1. How will you pay for it?
  2. Which physical therapist will you choose?

While working with a physical therapist isn’t outrageously expensive as far as medical costs go, it can add up if multiple visits are required. The first thing you should do is check your health insurance. Does your policy cover physical therapy? Do you need a referral from your primary care provider first? The average physical therapy appointment cost is $20–$55 copay, or $75–$150 without insurance.

When it comes to choosing a physical therapist, keep in mind that the field has a wide array of specialties. You’ll want to find a physical therapist who knows how to focus on your specific problems. Currently, PTs can be board-certified in nine specialty areas:

  • Cardiovascular and pulmonary
  • Geriatrics
  • Oncology
  • Neurology
  • Clinical electrophysiology
  • Pediatrics
  • Orthopedics
  • Women’s health
  • Sports
  • Wound management

Additionally, a physical therapist might spend much of her time focused on specific ailments or regions of the body: shoulder problems, for example, or hand or foot injuries. You’ll want to ask around for recommendations to find a good match for you. Your primary care physician would be a good place to start.

Preparing for Your First Physical Therapy Appointment

Your new PT will do all they can to make your appointment comfortable and beneficial. All you need to do is come equipped with any questions and concerns you might have about your condition and injuries. You’ll also want to wear clothing that will allow for any exercises or evaluations, which depending on the reason for your visit could range from time on a treadmill to simply lifting your arm overhead. Wear shorts if you have a knee injury; the PT will need to look at the joint to evaluate it.

The first visit will be all about understanding your problem and designing a treatment plan. The therapist will review your medical history and ask detailed questions to help understand the issue. They’ll want to know how the injury occurred. Did you accidentally twist something, or was there a long, gradual onset of pain? They’ll want to know when pain occurs. With every step? Only when climbing stairs? How has the injury limited you in your daily activities?

The physical therapist will then perform an objective exam, which will vary depending on your condition. If it’s a joint injury, for example, they will move the joint through its range of motion and perform tests to rule out (or in) any underlying conditions.

Your Physical Therapy Treatment Plan

As for treatment, your PT may want to set up a series of return visits so they can work with you and monitor your progress. They will give you a prescription of exercises to perform, and based on the response of your injuries to these exercises, they will modify the treatment plan accordingly.

Assigned home exercises may require products that help with physical therapy, which are generally low cost and easy to use. Compliance with this home exercise plan is very important. You can’t expect fast, full recovery if you only perform your exercises when you’re in the PT office.

After Physical Therapy

Once you’ve completed your physical therapy and your injury feels fully recovered, it’s not time to slack off. Remember, many injuries and illnesses are the result of a lack of fitness, and physical therapy is just as important as a preventative measure as it is for recovery.

With that in mind, you’ll want to keep up the exercise. You may not need to continue those same exercises that you used in your physical therapy prescription, but at the very least you’ll want to incorporate a general fitness plan into your post-recovery lifestyle. This isn’t the greatest time to be joining a gym (thanks, Covid!) but home exercise is always an option with just a few simple posture and conditioning products.