Physical therapists are movement experts. They help people reduce pain, improve or restore mobility, and stay active throughout life. But there are some common misbeliefs that often discourage people from seeking physical therapist treatment.
It's time to debunk seven common myths about physical therapy:
1. Myth: I need a referral to see a physical therapist.
Fact: A recent survey by the American Physical Therapy Association revealed 70% of people think a referral or prescription is required for evaluation by a physical therapist. However, you do not need a physician's referral to be evaluated by a physical therapist. And in most states, you do not need a referral to receive treatment by a physical therapist. Some states have set limits on the types or length of treatment a physical therapist can provide without a physician's referral. Also, some insurance plans require a referral before they will pay for physical therapy. Check out APTA's direct access summary chart to learn about access to physical therapy in your state.
2. Myth: Physical therapy is painful.
Fact: Physical therapists work to minimize your pain and discomfort—including chronic or long-term pain. They work within your pain threshold to help you heal, and restore movement and function. While 71% of people who have never visited a physical therapist fear it will be painful, the number of people who think it's painful is significantly lower among patients who have actually seen a physical therapist in the past year.
3. Myth: Physical therapy is only for injuries and accidents.
Fact: Physical therapists do a lot more than stretching or strengthening weak muscles after an injury or surgery. They evaluate and diagnose many problems before they lead to more serious injuries or disability. They also help people manage pain. Physical therapists treat people with a variety of conditions. From carpal tunnel syndrome, problems related to heart disease, and frozen shoulder, to chronic headaches, low back pain, and long COVID, a physical therapist can partner with you to restore health and function. See more symptoms and conditions that physical therapists treat.
4. Myth: Any health care provider can perform physical therapy.
Fact: Although 42% of consumers know that physical therapy can only be provided by a licensed physical therapist, 37% inaccurately believe other health care providers can also perform physical therapy. Physical therapists are trained movement experts. Since 2000, all physical therapists who graduate in the United States must complete a three-year post-graduate program to earn a doctorate in physical therapy. Graduates before 2000, may have earned a bachelor's, master's, or doctoral level degree in physical therapy. All graduates also must pass a national exam to be licensed and practice physical therapy in their state. Physical therapists may use “PT” or “DPT” after their names. A physical therapist with a DPT is called a doctor of physical therapy. Many physical therapists also earn board certification, which requires significant clinical experience, and passing an additional exam that demonstrates advanced skills and expertise in specific one of 10 specific areas including:
- Clinical Electrophysiology.
- Cardiovascular and pulmonary.
- Women’s health.
5. Myth: Physical therapy isn't covered by insurance.
Fact: Most insurance policies cover some form of physical therapy. Beyond insurance coverage, physical therapy has proven to reduce costs by helping people avoid unneeded imaging scans and reduce the need for:
- Prescription medicines.
Physical therapy also can lower costs. Physical therapists help patients avoid falls that could lead to hospital visits. They also work with patients to address conditions before they become chronic and more costly. Learn more about how payment for physical therapist services works.
6. Myth: Surgery is my only option.
Fact: In many cases, physical therapy has been shown to be as effective as surgery in treating a wide range of conditions such as:
- Rotator cuff tears.
- Degenerative disk disease and spinal stenosis.
- Meniscal tears.
- Some forms of knee osteoarthritis.
Those who have recently seen a physical therapist know this to be true, with 79% believing physical therapy is a safe alternative to surgery.
7. Myth: I can do physical therapy myself.
Fact: Your participation is key to a successful treatment plan, but you still need the expert care and guidance of a licensed physical therapist. They will leverage their specialized education, clinical expertise, and the latest available evidence to evaluate your needs and make a diagnosis before creating a personalized plan of care.
Depending on your specific condition and needs, your physical therapy plan also may include treatment or hands-on care (manual therapy and joint mobilization) that is not possible to do on your own.
Physical therapists are movement experts. They improve quality of life through hands-on care, patient education, and prescribed movement. You can contact a physical therapist directly for an evaluation. To find a physical therapist in your area, visit Find a PT.