A good physical therapist can make you work, sweat, and cheer all at the same time.

That may not sound all that positive to you, but a physical therapist should be a key member of your health care team if your goals include:

  • Regaining movement
  • Reducing pain
  • Restoring daily function
  • Preventing disability

A physical therapist is much more than an exercise coach; they are highly educated, licensed health care professionals, who often are able to help patients avoid expensive surgery or long-term prescription medications. Training and exercise is part of your physical therapy treatment plan and your PT has the knowledge and expertise to know when to push you to do more than you thought and to push you even further.

Occasionally, people may experience physical therapy as uncomfortable or frustrating. After a physical therapy session, you may feel sore or exhausted. But with expert PT oversight, you will be assured that these are natural parts of the healing and strengthening process that will help you get back on your feet and moving after an injury, surgery, or even learning to walk again after a stroke. A physical therapist will cheer and encourage you to keep pushing yourself to the best of your ability. That’s why some say a physical therapist is a miracle worker.

Who are physical therapists?

Physical therapists must complete six to seven years of university education. According to the American Physical Therapy Association, recent graduates will have a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree. After that, they are required to pass a state exam so that they may practice as a licensed physical therapist. PTs enjoy working with people, they spend most of their day providing hands-on treatment and empowering people to take control of their own health and healing.

What do physical therapists do?

A physical therapist’s job involves three main activities:

  • Examination
  • Diagnosis
  • Implementation of a treatment plan

The physical examination looks at your:

  • Muscle function
  • Strength
  • Flexibility
  • Range of motion
  • Balance
  • Coordination
  • Posture
  • Respiration
  • Skin integrity
  • Motor function
  • Quality of life
  • Activities of daily living

The physical therapist helps determine a diagnosis, then works in concert with your doctor as part of your health care team as you progress through your treatment program. Your PT often will work just as hard as you to help you strengthen and heal your body through therapeutic exercise and manual therapy.

Depending on need, your health care team also may include a:

  • Physician
  • Occupational therapist
  • Speech-language pathologist
  • Physical therapist assistant or physical therapist aide

Where do physical therapists work?

You might expect to see a physical therapist in a hospital or rehabilitation center, but over 80 percent of PTs actually work in:

  • Private practice
  • Outpatient clinics
  • Home health agencies
  • Schools
  • Sports and fitness facilities
  • Industrial workplace and occupational settings
  • Hospice facilities
  • Nursing homes and assisted living facilities

A physical therapist may specialize in a field such as orthopedics or geriatrics, which can determine the setting in which they administer treatment.

Why would I need a physical therapist?

Your doctor may refer you to a PT for help with:

  • Recovery from a sports injury
  • Rehabilitation after a stroke, accident, or surgery
  • Improving balance and preventing falls
  • Dealing with chronic pain or discomfort
  • Strengthening your pelvic floor after giving birth
  • Managing heart disease or arthritis
  • Gaining better bowel or bladder control
  • Learning how to use an artificial limb
  • Adjusting to a new cane or walker

Physical therapists work with people of all ages and health conditions—from babies born prematurely to the elderly; from those with limited mobility to elite athletes; from people with brain injuries to back injuries, and anything in between.

What conditions do physical therapists treat?

A PT can help whenever you are having trouble moving comfortably, are experiencing pain, have lost function, or are at risk for disability.

Some of the conditions typically treated include:

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Cardiovascular event such as heart attack
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Back pain
  • Rotator cuff tear
  • Stroke
  • Spinal cord injury
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Brain injury
  • Developmental delay
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Muscular dystrophy
  • Sports-related injuries
  • Incontinence
  • Wound care
  • Burn care
  • Diabetic ulcer
  • Arthritis
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Alzheimer’s disease

Working with a PT will help you get up and moving again. Your physical therapist will push you, encourage you, and help you. You’ll probably will work, sweat, and cheer. But in the end, you will thank them for working beside you.