You might think of physical therapy as something you do if you are injured in a game or a car accident, or if you had a major surgery—and it is! However, there are many other reasons people benefit from physical therapy, and some may surprise you.
Christine Carr, MPT, a UNC Health physical therapist, and Sarah Ruff, MD, a UNC Health primary care physician, share some of the most common reasons people seek physical therapy and what you should know before pursuing it.
Reasons to See a Physical Therapist
Physical therapy is the evaluation and treatment of the musculoskeletal system, meaning your nervous system, muscles and bones. Physical therapists seek to restore your movement, relieve pain and build strength and endurance to improve your daily life. You might need a physical therapist for many reasons, including:
1. Back and neck pain
Dr. Ruff says one of the most common conditions she refers patients to physical therapy for is chronic lower back pain. A physical therapist can help identify the source of the pain and develop a plan to fix it.
You don’t need to have had a specific injury to have chronic pain. Daily life is enough. For example, physical therapists can help treat tight necks and shoulders stemming from stress or an improper work-from-home setup.
“You want your screen at eye height and the keyboard at elbow height, which is virtually impossible with a laptop,” Carr says. “For alignment while you work, your ears should be over your shoulders, which should be over your hips.”
2. Injuries from a car accident or fall, or after major surgery
Musculoskeletal physical therapists, also known as orthopedic physical therapists, help patients regain their movement or strength after suffering injuries from a car accident or a fall, or after a major surgery. This can include stretches, exercise plans, joint mobilization and more. Even if you feel you’re recovering fine, you may benefit from physical therapy to strengthen your body and help prevent future injury.
3. Pain while exercising or athletic injuries
Physical therapists can help athletes recover from common conditions that are caused by repetitive motions, such as runner’s knee (dull pain around the front of the knee), jumper’s knee (inflammation in the tissue between the kneecap and shin) or other forms of tendinitis. And you don’t have to consider yourself an athlete to benefit from treatment. If you want to exercise safely and without pain, a physical therapist can help.
4. Recovery needs after a neurological medical event
Some physical therapists specialize in helping people live better with neurological medical conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, strokes and cerebral palsy.
Neurological physical therapists help these patients regain their balance, mobility and ability to perform routine activities for daily life. For example, physical therapy for Parkinson’s disease might include strength and flexibility training, walking practice and even voice work.
5. Vertigo (dizziness)
Physical therapists can help patients experiencing vertigo, which is a dizzy feeling that can happen when the calcium crystals in the ears that detect movement become dislodged. This type of healing, called vestibular rehabilitation, helps reset those crystals to restore balance.
6. Weak pelvic floor
Many women seek pelvic floor physical therapy after having a baby. It can help strengthen the pelvic floor, improve urinary incontinence (loss of bladder control) and alleviate pain during sex. The pelvic floor issues that many women try to ignore—peeing while coughing or laughing, for example—can be effectively treated with physical therapy, including in-office external and internal procedures performed by the therapist.
Physical therapy can help people experiencing lymphedema, which is swelling due to a buildup of lymph fluid (body waste). Lymphedema is common among cancer survivors who had lymph nodes removed during surgery or who received radiation treatment in the lymph node area. Physical therapy for lymphedema could include light massage to help with drainage, a targeted exercise program and training on how to use compression to control swelling.
8. Weak bones
Physical therapists can help develop exercise programs for people with osteoporosis (weakening of the bones) to increase bone strength, improve balance and maintain proper alignment. The programs could include weightlifting, use of exercise bands and guidance on how to limit the risk of injury while exercising.
9. Plantar fasciitis
Plantar fasciitis is a condition that occurs when inflammation on the bottom of the foot causes pain. Physical therapy can help identify the root cause and develop a treatment plan to alleviate the pain. The treatment plan could include exercises to strengthen and stretch the supporting muscles, gait training to improve form while walking and recommendations on orthotics for shoes.
How to Start Physical Therapy
If you’re experiencing any of the issues above or have a nagging pain that is interfering with your daily life, don’t let it linger. Contact your primary care physician.
“Your primary care provider can help you make a diagnosis on what’s causing your pain and help refer you to the right person to help you with it, whether that be a physical therapist or an orthopedic physician,” Dr. Ruff says. “Primary care providers often work with the physical therapist to get to the root of the problem and how to best address it.”
Carr recommends against consulting Dr. Google.
“Sometimes patients tell us they’ve been doing exercises and treatments they found online, and they are actually making the problem worse,” she says.
Some insurance providers will only cover physical therapy for certain conditions, Dr. Ruff says, but it’s worth asking to find out. Some insurers allow physical therapy without a doctor’s referral, but Medicare and Medicaid require a referral.
Depending on the issue, you could also see a sports medicine physician. They are similar to orthopedic doctors but will focus on nonsurgical treatment options, Dr. Ruff says.
The Secret to Physical Therapy Success: Commitment
Before pursuing physical therapy, it’s important to know that success depends on your commitment to the program you are prescribed. You might receive therapeutic massage and perform exercises and stretches during office visits, but you’re usually supposed to continue the moves at home.
“Sometimes we recommend daily exercises or stretches to help with muscle imbalance or a flexibility issue. If you aren’t committed to doing them at home, you won’t see significant change,” Carr says.
Physical therapy programs can also include lifestyle changes, such as moving more during the day, switching to a standing desk or wearing different shoes, Carr says.
If a treatment plan requires repeat office visits that are logistically or financially difficult for you, Dr. Ruff suggests just starting with the first appointment.
“Sometimes, especially if insurance won’t cover the appointments, patients are worried about starting physical therapy,” she says. “But I usually recommend they go to the first appointment, see if they can get to the root of the issue and then decide if they need to follow up. Frequent office visits are not always necessary.”
Physical therapists try their best to consider each patient’s needs to form the best plan to help them feel better, Carr says.
Looking for a primary care physician or a physical therapist? Find one near you.