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Physical Therapy: Why It's Important, When to Go & What to Expect

March 18, 2021 - Katie McCallum

So you left your doctor's appointment with a referral slip for physical therapy. Now what?

"People of course know when they're in pain, but many don't know when or how physical therapy might help relieve their pain," says Dr. Corbin Hedt, physical therapist who specializes in orthopedics and sports medicine at Houston Methodist. "Through guided exercises and education about how your body is meant to move, physical therapy aims to make lasting improvements to your mobility and strength — helping to prevent or relieve injuries and/or disease."

Dr. Hedt is here to answer common questions you may have about physical therapy.

Why is physical therapy important?

When a muscle is burning or a joint is aching, your first thought is probably to take a pain reliever, get some rest and try some ice or heat. But if the pain continues despite these easy at-home remedies, it might be time to consider physical therapy.

Physical therapy can help:

  • Strengthen your muscles, reducing the strain on your joints
  • Improve balance and/or mobility
  • Relieve pain
  • Prevent injury
  • Restore function, stability and mobility after an injury

"Physical therapists are trained to identify biomechanical deficiencies that are either currently leading to pain or might lead to pain or injury in the future," says Dr. Hedt. "From therapeutic exercises and manual therapy with our hands to newer techniques and modalities, a physical therapist has a range of noninvasive treatment options he or she can use to help address or prevent movement issues."

A huge piece of physical therapy is education — specifically, teaching you the right way to engage your muscles and move your body. This is especially important if there are muscle groups you're using incorrectly.

"Everyone knows how to simply move their body, but that doesn't mean everyone is doing so correctly," adds Dr. Hedt. "And that's okay, because the way our muscles and joints work together is incredibly complex. We always try to make physical therapy a life-changing learning experience that has lasting results on how a person moves and views their body."

Who can benefit from physical therapy?

Physical therapy can help relieve common injuries and types of pain, including:

  • Arthritis
  • Back pain and strains
  • Herniated disc
  • Knee pain
  • Rotator cuff tears
  • Sciatica

But Dr. Hedt says anyone can benefit from physical therapy — even people who are currently pain-free.

"Not only can a physical therapist help correct an injury or pain a person is already experiencing, we're also trained to identify and address subtle issues that could lead to pain or injury in the future," adds Dr. Hedt. "Additionally, there are several sub-specialties of physical therapy, including sports, pediatrics, geriatrics, neurology, cardiac and respiratory physical therapy."

For instance: A pediatric physical therapist specializes in helping children with bone or muscle issues, sports injuries or inherited movement disorders; on the other hand, a cardiac physical therapist provides rehabilitative exercise counseling and training for those recovering from heart attack, heart failure or heart surgery.

What happens at a physical therapy appointment?

Once you understand why physical therapy helps and when it's time to see a physical therapist, the last question you probably need answered is what to expect.

Physical therapy starts with an evaluation

"The first appointment is always an evaluation, which has three main parts: a subjective conversation about your issue; an objective assessment of your biomechanics; and an explanation of your final diagnosis and treatment plan," explains Dr. Hedt.

First, your physical therapist will sit down with you and ask you questions about your pain or injury itself, as well as the habit or events that may have led you to this point. This Q&A-based conversation helps your physical therapist understand how you got where you are physically.

"Often times, and especially if you have been suffering from chronic pain for a while, this subjective assessment ends up being cathartic for a person — a time to unload the pain and reflect on much you miss being able to do the things you love," says Dr. Hedt.

Next, your physical therapist will use several different functional tests to measure your strength and range of motion, either throughout your body or for the specific muscles and joints causing issues.

The last piece of your evaluation is the final diagnosis and explanation of your treatment plan.

"We pair the subjective and objective assessments together to determine what's causing your issue and create a plan of action to correct it," explains Dr. Hedt. "We then explain your diagnosis and the specifics of your treatment plan to you, such as how long you'll need physical therapy and how many visits are needed."

What to expect at your physical therapy follow-up sessions

After your initial evaluation, you'll begin your follow-up sessions where your physical therapist will work with you to employ the exercises, stretches, treatments and interventions needed to correct your issue.

"The exercises and stretches your physical therapist guide you through are the cornerstone of your treatment plan," explains Dr. Hedt. "They're meant to help improve your strength and mobility — reducing pain and strain on your joints — and they'll continue to be important to help you stay pain-free."

Additionally, there are several nonsurgical approaches your therapist might use to help relieve pain and promote recovery, including:

  • Dry needling – uses tiny needles to ease the pain associated with knots and tight muscles
  • Dry cupping – applies suction to the site of the pain in order to increase circulation, thereby reducing any inflammation
  • Kinesthesiology taping – provides slight support to a muscle or muscles, reducing pain and promoting proper alignment
  • Blood flow restriction – uses special blood pressure cuffs to help a person build strength without stressing a healing injury

"Your physical therapist may also use manual therapy to improve joint mobility, reduce scar tissue buildup caused by injury, or help relax tight muscles," adds Dr. Hedt.

Lastly, there's homework between your follow-up appointments — at-home stretches and exercises that continue rehabilitation. And throughout your sessions, your physical therapist reassesses your condition to make sure you're appropriately progressing.

Will you need physical therapy your whole life?

"This is probably the question I'm asked the most," says Dr. Hedt. "Physical therapy treatment plans and timelines look different for every single person, even for people with identical injuries. Still, our goal is always the same: To help you establish good habits and exercise practices so that you hopefully won't need physical therapy in the future. We always like to find out what you like to do to stay active and make sure that you finish your treatment plan feeling confident that you know how to maintain your activity level pain-free."

 

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