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Physical Therapy: An Overview

An injury, illness, chemotherapy, bed rest, inactivity, or disease may change the amount of control that you have over moving your body.  Alterations in your health status may result in poor endurance, decreased muscle movement, paralysis, and loss of balance, sensation, strength, or coordination.  Physical challenges or limitations may interfere with your ability to complete important movements, such as rolling over in bed, sitting up, standing, and walking.  You may require help from others to move your body.  Physical therapists understand the desire, importance, and hope of being able to complete activities as independently and safely as possible.  By participating in physical therapy, you may learn how to improve your physical skills, move your body in a different way, or use assistive equipment to help compensate for limitations.  You will learn exercises that are beneficial for gaining function, reducing stress, relieving discomfort, and preventing disability or future injury.
Physical therapists are professionals who enter the field after earning masters or doctoral degree in physical therapy.  Following their education, they must successfully complete a series of internships and pass a national licensure examination.  They must also receive continuing education throughout their careers.  Physical therapists can gain specialty credentials in an area of practice, such as a Certified Hand Therapist, after successfully completing practice, education, and examination requirements.
Physical therapists realize that gaining control over your body is important for your lifestyle and self-esteem.  They are dedicated to helping you reduce your limitations and perform the activities that are the most important to you.  Physical therapy may help you recondition your body for optimal safe and independent function.  They can use therapeutic modalities, such as heat packs or ultrasound to minimize discomfort and improve flexibility.  Their goal is to help you improve regain functional mobility to increase your safety, independence, and quality of life.
Your physical therapist will evaluate your baseline strengths, limitations, and independent functional skill level.  Your muscle movements, strength, coordination, balance, and endurance will be assessed.  Your physical therapist will ask you to perform activities, including maintaining sitting and standing balance, walking, or getting into or out of a chair.  You should tell the physical therapist about any difficulties or safety concerns that you have.  The evaluation results and your input are used to formulate a customized treatment plan that prioritizes your specific short term and long term goals.
Physical therapy treatments may target specific muscles to stimulate muscle contractions and facilitate movement.  This may be achieved with vibration, temperature, and transcutaneous nerve stimulation (TENS).  You will learn how to exercise the affected part of your body to improve circulation, reduce swelling, and keep the muscles and tissues healthy to prevent possible complications.  Your therapist can recommend the right amount and type of exercises to challenge you, while at the same time, helping you safely build up to your maximal level of physical activity.
If your limitations are permanent or severe, you may be able to learn compensation techniques including the use of assistive devices.  For example, you may need to re-learn how to walk or learn how to walk in a different way, such as with a cane, walker, or leg bracing.  You may learn how to instruct caregivers to help move your body safely and efficiently.  If you need a wheelchair, a physical therapist can help you select the most appropriate one for you and teach you how to use it.  Additionally, as your condition changes, your program will be adjusted to meet your new goals.  Eventually, you may advance to a home exercise program or participate in an “open gym.”  Regular exercise is important to improve and maintain your posture, balance, stamina, and strength.  Additionally, regular exercise is important for your overall health and helps reduce stress.

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This information is intended for educational and informational purposes only. It should not be used in place of an individual consultation or examination or replace the advice of your health care professional and should not be relied upon to determine diagnosis or course of treatment.

The iHealthSpot patient education library was written collaboratively by the iHealthSpot editorial team which includes Senior Medical Authors Dr. Mary Car-Blanchard, OTD/OTR/L and Valerie K. Clark, and the following editorial advisors: Steve Meadows, MD, Ernie F. Soto, DDS, Ronald J. Glatzer, MD, Jonathan Rosenberg, MD, Christopher M. Nolte, MD, David Applebaum, MD, Jonathan M. Tarrash, MD, and Paula Soto, RN/BSN. This content complies with the HONcode standard for trustworthy health information. The library commenced development on September 1, 2005 with the latest update/addition on April 13th, 2016. For information on iHealthSpot’s other services including medical website design, visit

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