Physical therapy is treatment provided by a physical therapist or physical therapist assistant.
Physical therapists are educated, licensed clinicians and movement experts who improve quality of life through hands-on care, patient education, and prescribed movement.
After making a diagnosis, physical therapists create personalized treatment plans that help their patients improve their movement, manage pain and other chronic conditions, and recover from and prevent injury and chronic disease.
You do not need a physician's referral to make an appointment with a PT for an evaluation.
Physical therapist assistants (PTAs) are educated and licensed clinicians who provide care under the direction and supervision of a physical therapist.
Care provided by a PTA may include teaching people exercise for mobility, strength and coordination, training for activities such as walking with crutches, canes, or walkers, massage, and the use of physical agents and electrotherapy such as ultrasound and electrical stimulation. PTAs may also measure changes in the patient's performance as a result of the physical therapy provided.
PTs and PTAs care for people of all ages and abilities.
PTs and PTAs empower people to actively participate in their own treatment. They work collaboratively with each other, and with other health professionals, to ensure patients receive the best care.
You can see a PT and PTA almost anywhere, including hospitals, private practices, outpatient clinics, people’s homes, schools, sports and fitness facilities, work settings, and nursing homes.
Below are descriptions of some physical therapy practice areas:
Acute care physical therapists provide skilled services for the individual with acute health problems, resulting in limitations in mobility, loss of function, and/or skin integrity issues. While the majority of patients are hospitalized, others are children with developmental disabilities or individuals of all ages who need physical therapy because of injury or acute illness. Acute care physical therapists are experts in the evaluation and treatment of those with medically complex conditions. Acute care physical therapy may be provided in an emergency room, hospital, intensive care unit, long-term acute care facility, a skilled nursing or residential facility, group home, hospice, patient residence, caregiver’s home, or in a community setting.
The following are health conditions commonly treated by acute care physical therapists:
- Total joint replacements
- Fractures or multiple trauma
- Stroke and spinal cord injuries
- Fall risk or balance issues
- Cancer-related debility
- Medical problems and/or surgical procedures
- Acute infection/wound care/burn care
- Cardiovascular and pulmonary conditions
- Transplantation (both pre- and post-transplant)
Aquatic physical therapy includes the treatment and rehabilitation of patients in an aquatic environment. The unique properties of water, including buoyancy, accommodative resistance and support enhance interventions for patients across a wide age span with musculoskeletal, neuromuscular, cardiopulmonary and integumentary conditions.
These specific interventions help improve:
- Function and independence
- Body mechanics and posture
- Gait and ambulation
Cardiovascular and pulmonary physical therapy is the provision of health, wellness, prevention and rehabilitation services in a variety of practice settings to individuals of all ages at risk for, or diagnosed with, cardiovascular or pulmonary impairments.
Health conditions commonly treated by cardiovascular and pulmonary physical therapists include:
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
- Acute and chronic respiratory disorders
- Vascular disease
- Arterial disease
- Cystic Fibrosis
- Heart disease
Geriatric physical therapy is a rapidly growing specialty area focused on optimizing aging. Physical therapists who work in this area treat a broad range of individuals, including:
- healthy adults who want to continue to safely pursue recreational activities as they age
- individuals who are at risk for injuries from falls or other adverse events
- persons with medical conditions that limit their mobility or ability to perform activities independently
- critically ill or injured older individuals requiring acute hospital care
- older persons who need rehabilitation after surgery
- frail individuals requiring short-term skilled nursing or long-term care
- older persons in hospice care who want to remain as independent as possible
Health conditions commonly treated by geriatric physical therapists include:
- Cancer-related complications
- Complications from hypertension
- Fall risk
- Heart & lung disorders
- Joint replacement surgery
- Neurological conditions (e.g., stroke, Parkinson disease, multiple sclerosis, vestibular disorders)
- Osteoarthritis & rheumatoid arthritis
- Osteopenia & osteoporosis
- Overweight & obesity
- Pre-diabetes & diabetes
- Sports related injuries
- Wounds & amputations
Home health physical therapy is the provision of skilled services in the patient’s place of residence. While the majority of patients are senior citizens, there are pediatric patients with developmental disabilities and other conditions, and individuals of all ages who need rehabilitation due to injury or illness. Home care may be provided in the patient’s residence, the caregiver's home, a hospital emergency room, skilled nursing facility, residential facility, group home, hospice, or elsewhere in the community.
The following are health conditions commonly seen by home health physical therapists:
- Total joint replacements
- Progressive neurological conditions
- Fall risk
- Chronic pain
- Heart failure
Neurologic physical therapy includes the evaluation and treatment of individuals with movement problems due to disease or injury of the nervous system. Physical therapists who practice in neurology provide services to individuals of all ages with the goal of improving function and overall ability to participate in personal roles and activities that are important to the individual. Neurologic physical therapists practice in many settings, including acute care hospitals, rehabilitation centers, outpatient clinics, skilled nursing and long-term care facilities, schools, patients’ homes, and other community locations.
The following health conditions are commonly treated by physical therapists specializing in the area of neurology:
- Balance and vestibular disorders
- Pediatric conditions, including cerebral palsy, spina bifida, and genetic disorders
- Cerebrovascular accident
- Central & peripheral nervous system tumors
- Traumatic brain injury
- Parkinson's Disease
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis
- Acute or chronic peripheral neuropathies, including Guillian Barre, chronic inflammatory neuropathy
- Spinal cord injury
Oncologic physical therapy is the provision of skilled therapy services for patients with cancer. Oncologic physical therapists treat patients of all ages and practice in acute care and rehabilitation hospitals, skilled nursing units, outpatient and home health settings, and health/wellness centers. They are often involved during the early stages of an individual's cancer diagnosis and can be vital throughout the course of a patient’s treatment by helping maintain/gain strength, flexibility, and endurance and maximizing function.
The following are health conditions commonly treated by oncologic physical therapists:
- Breast cancer
- Colon cancer
- Lung cancer
- Lymphedema related to cancer
- Bone cancer
- Brain cancer
- Multiple myeloma
- Skin cancer
Orthopedic physical therapy is the provision of care for those individuals of all ages with disorders or dysfunction of the musculoskeletal system. Orthopedic physical therapists are skilled in the diagnosis, management, and prevention of musculoskeletal disorders. They are experts in the assessment of movement and can help individuals move better, often with less pain, through skilled manual therapy, therapeutic exercise and patient education. Orthopedic physical therapy is often provided in an outpatient rehabilitation setting; however, orthopedic physical therapy extends into many other health care settings, including hospitals, homes, sports clinics, and industrial sites.
The following health conditions are often managed by orthopedic physical therapists:
- Low back and neck pain
- Rotator cuff injuries and other shoulder problems
- Plantar fasciitis
- Post-operative rehabilitation from orthopedic surgical procedures
- Muscle strains
- Joint sprains/pain/swelling, including knee and ankle injuries
- Chronic pain
- Tennis/golfer’s elbow
- Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Pediatric physical therapists provide support and services for children (birth to 21 years) with developmental disabilities, and their families, aimed at developing, restoring and improving mobility to improve quality of life. These services are provided in homes, schools, and community settings, as well as in hospitals and clinics. Pediatric physical therapy benefits children and their families/caregivers by promoting activity and participation in everyday routines, increasing functional independence, enhancing learning opportunities, improving strength and endurance, facilitating motor development and mobility, and easing the challenges of daily caregiving. In addition to direct intervention and consultation, pediatric physical therapists promote health and fitness for children with all levels of ability and provide information to and collaborate with families and other medical, developmental, and educational specialists.
The following are health conditions commonly treated by pediatric physical therapists:
- Developmental delay
- Cerebral palsy
- Spina bifida
- Down syndrome and other genetic disorders
- Neuromuscular disorders
- Orthopedic conditions or injuries
- Pulmonary disorders
- Brain injury
- Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis
- Burns or other injuries
- Autism spectrum disorders
Sports physical therapy is a specialized practice that focuses on prevention, evaluation, treatment, rehabilitation, and performance enhancement of the physically active individual. This includes pre-participation screenings, equipment recommendations, prescribed fitness programs, and much more. Sports physical therapists incorporate the most current research into their practice to help the active individual fully participate in sports and recreation.
The following are interventions often provided by sports physical therapists:
- Performance enhancement
- Injury prevention
- On-site evaluation and management of acute sports injuries
- Treatment and rehabilitation
Women's health physical therapy is the evaluation and treatment of musculoskeletal disorders and the prevention of disorders in women across the life span. This includes young female athletes, women of child bearing age, and menopausal and elderly women. While the majority of patients are women, specialized physical therapists can also provide evaluation and treatment to male patients with pelvic floor disorders including pain and incontinence.
The following are health conditions commonly treated by women’s health physical therapists:
- Urinary incontinence
- Bowel incontinence
- Pelvic pain
- Pregnancy/post-partum pain and weakness
- Breast cancer