Does your back hurt? Can you barely walk due to hip issues? Maybe you have chronic pain. Not being able to move well is frustrating and affects more than mobility. For example, you may be incapable of going to your kids' games or socializing as often as you would like. One person who might be able to help is a physical therapist.

What is a physical therapist?

A physical therapist (PT) is a medical specialist who helps people prevent injuries, or in the case of existing conditions, treat them to restore your mobility. PTs may stretch, massage, or exercise various parts of your body and create a custom plan to track your progress. Seeking physical therapy can be a wise alternative to surgery or treatment to try before more invasive procedures.

Physical therapists often use equipment such as treadmills, bicycles, and even swimming pools. They prescribe exercises to do at home, which maximize the benefits you can get from physical therapy.

Reasons to see a physical therapist

There are many reasons that someone might see a PT. You may be pregnant, for example, and experiencing excruciating back pain. You might have been injured in a car accident and need to learn to walk again. You could be an athlete at any age and at any level who wants to increase your range of motion and prevent injuries. Alternatively, you could be a senior citizen who needs help dealing with arthritis.

Here are some of the most common reasons to see a PT: 

  • Chronic pain
  • Balance difficulties
  • Runner injuries
  • Osteoporosis
  • Stroke
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Injury prevention

In some states, you need a referral from your primary care physician to see a PT. In fact, the line to physical therapy may not be quite that straightforward. You might end up having to see, another specialist first, depending on the location of your injury. For example, if you have a problem with your feet, you may need to see a podiatrist before you can get a referral to a PT. 

What does a physical therapist do?

Your therapist will reviews notes from your referring doctors and consult with you to develop a treatment plan. If you are in a wheelchair or need help moving, your PT can move or lift you. They may also work with aides.

Physical therapists work in clinical settings like doctors' offices, private practices, nursing homes, and hospitals. They often work alongside other doctors to treat their patients.

Some PTs choose to specialize further. Some focuses include sports medicine, geriatrics, and orthopedics. When selecting a physical therapist, an important step is considering their areas of expertise.

Usually, patients have a good idea of what their condition or problem is by the time they see a PT because they have been evaluated and referred at least once. Even if you are directly accessing a PT, you probably already have an approximation of the issue at hand.

How is a physical therapist certified?

Each state requires the licensure of PTs. They must pass a national exam, and in some states, a background check and additional exam. However, licensure is not the same as certification, and many PTs decide not to become certified.

Those who do opt for certification choose among areas such as geriatrics, women's health, or pediatrics through the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties. Each specialty requires additional study, hands-on work, and the passing of an exam.

PTs graduate with a Doctorate in Physical Therapy, typically spending three years in an accredited program. They can usually enroll in the doctoral program directly after undergraduate school as long as they have adequate education in biology, physiology, and other areas. Following their doctorate, they are required to spend an additional year in clinical training.

Referral and research

Though some states allow you to see a PT without a referral, generally, you end up in the physical therapist's office after seeing at least one other doctor. It could be because nailing down a condition has proven difficult or because you needed other treatment first. For example, if you were in a car accident, you may have had to undergo surgeries and a hospital stay. You might even start seeing your PT while you are still in the hospital.

If you are confident that you know what caused your injury (perhaps it is back pain from sitting in an office chair all day), that physical therapy can treat your condition(s), and that you live in a direct-access state, it is helpful to search online for these professionals. You can seek out online reviews using CareDash, and you can always, of course, talk with your primary care physician first to get referrals. If you have state health or private insurance, you probably want to ensure your appointments will be covered before setting up an appointment.

First meeting with your physical therapist

No matter if you are seeing a PT to recover after a serious car accident, to deal with arthritis, or to prevent injuries, it helps to ask questions. If nothing else, the way the PT answers offers insight into their communication and treatment style. Questions to ask include:

  • How much experience do you have with [specific condition or injury]?
  • How do you see my recovery timeline?
  • What lifestyle changes should I make?

You will not be the only one asking questions. Prepare to be asked about any stressors in your life, your eating habits, your hobbies/leisure activities and what you do at work. The PT uses these answers along with a physical evaluation (ex: testing your joints' range of motion and the alignment of your back) to develop a treatment plan and the exercises you should do at home.

Some PTs may not be a good fit for you, and that's okay. This person will be talking with you and touching you a lot, so comfort is necessary. See several therapists until you find one who meets your needs. If this is not possible, communicate with your therapist about what they can do better.