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5 Signs You Might Benefit From Seeing a Physical Therapist

Sep. 13, 2022 - Katie McCallum

When a joint or muscle aches, your first step may be to reach for a pain reliever. But medications only dull the pain — they don't fix the underlying cause.

That's where a physical therapist can help.

"Through guided exercises and education about how your body is meant to move, physical therapy helps make lasting improvements to your mobility and strength," says Dr. Corbin Hedt, a physical therapist who specializes in orthopedics and sports medicine at Houston Methodist.

This can help relieve muscle and joint pain caused by either overuse or misuse.

Dr. Hedt says that the most common reasons people seek out physical therapy are when tendonitis or muscle strains lead to:

  • Shoulder pain
  • Back pain
  • Hip pain
  • Knee pain

"These are the big muscle groups that get used a lot and, therefore, are most prone to injury," says Dr. Hedt. "But as physical therapists, we're trained in every muscle, bone and joint in the body."

He also adds that pain isn't the only time to ask your doctor about physical therapy.

Here are five reasons you may benefit from seeing a physical therapist:

1. Muscle or joint pain is limiting your approach to being active

Whether pain is affecting everyday activities — like walking, sitting, standing, climbing stairs — or keeping you from performing certain exercises or workouts, physical therapy can help you get back to pain-free movement.

"Pain is a signal that something is wrong," says Dr. Hedt. "Whenever you're having pain — especially if the pain forces you to change your lifestyle — it's best to seek help so you can get to the bottom of what's causing it."

(Related: Is Your Pain Just Muscle Soreness or a Serious Injury?)

Pain doesn't just keep you from being active. It can also lead to misusing or overworking other muscles as you modify your movements to avoid the pain, potentially causing new issues.

2. You have pain that won't go away

You've probably heard of R.I.C.E. — rest, ice, compression, elevation — the standard at-home remedy routine for muscle or joint pain. But if you're taking these steps and the pain isn't going away, it's time to get help. Most cases of tendonitis and muscle strain are effectively treated with physical therapy.

"If you let the underlying cause of your pain linger, it can potentially progress into a larger, more chronic problem," says Dr. Hedt.

For instance, left untreated, shoulder aches and pains can lead to rotator cuff tears or degenerative arthritis.

"The goal is to intervene early so we can prevent the injury from progressing," Dr. Hedt adds.

3. You're ready to get back to exercise after a big injury

A broken bone. A meniscus tear. A torn muscle or ligament. These are serious injuries that require keeping the affected area immobile for weeks.

Once you are ready for activity, though, ask your doctor about physical therapy ... if he or she hasn't recommended it already.

"Chances are that one of these bigger injuries could lead to a very subtle change in your movement if you're not careful," explains Dr. Hedt.

A physical therapist can help ensure that you're rehabilitating the injured area back to its full potential — restrengthening it effectively; spotting signs of misuse early, before they become a habit.

This is especially important for people who exercise regularly — which should be all of us, by the way.

"One little movement deviation you're making because of either loss of range of motion or strength could come back to bite you later," explains Dr. Hedt. "Not right away — not even in six months or a year — but maybe 10 years from now after you've favored your opposing joints and muscles for so long that they're now at risk for osteoarthritis."

4. You want to reduce your risk of future aches and pain

Many people think achy joints are an unavoidable result of age, the natural wear and tear that occurs over time.

Dr. Hedt says that this isn't always the case. Muscle and joint pain are preventable — if you know how to move correctly.

"Often times, we can find simple things a person is doing wrong, likely has been doing wrong for a long time," says Dr. Hedt. "By addressing those mistakes early, we can help prevent them from leading to future issues."

Prevention has been a goal of the physical therapy field for the past ten years or so — making an impact on community health by intervening in people's movement patterns before chronic issues arise.

Dr. Hedt says that physical therapists have simple ways of screening for a variety of issues, including:

  • Muscles you're overusing
  • Muscles you're underusing
  • Muscle imbalances
  • Whether you have weakness in certain muscle groups

"These are things that prevent you from moving as efficiently as possible and, over time, can lead to chronic muscle or joint issues that impact your life," Dr. Hedt explains.

Once a deficiency has been identified, a physical therapist can recommend exercises to help correct it.

"As physical therapists, we don't just evaluate and treat one area of the body," said Dr. Hedt. "We're looking at how everything functions together as a unit. So we're not just here to help fix pain. We're here to prevent it too."

5. You want an expert to assess your form or mechanics

When it comes to exercise, at some point we've likely all thought: Am I actually doing this right?

And while seeing a physical therapist about your form during a low impact exercise — like swimming or walking — probably isn't necessary, it might be for ones that are more technically challenging, such as CrossFit or power lifting.

(Related: Common Weightlifting Injuries & How to Prevent Them)

"Exercises and sports that have a lot of movements and muscles firing at the same time can be very challenging to do correctly," says Dr. Hedt. "Unless you have someone with a very skilled set of eyes watching your technique, you may be setting yourself up for injury."

The most skilled eyes you can find when it comes to assessing whether you're moving correctly are a physical therapist. Dr. Hedt helps people master their form on a daily basis.

"We've all heard that we're supposed to talk to our doctor before starting a new exercise regimen," says Dr. Hedit. "Well, why not ask your doctor for a prescription for physical therapy so you can get help with your form or mechanics while you're there?"

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