Does Physical Therapy Work?

From injury recovery to prepping for summer activities, physical therapy has something to offer everyone
By Lily Beltran
Does Physical Therapy Work?

Does physical therapy help? It’s a legitimate question. Before you spend time and money on any form of healthcare, you want to make sure it works for you. PT is highly effective for treating many conditions, such as orthopedic/sports injuries, senior care, back and neck pain, and as a strengthening program for summer sports. (Think how much safer, easier, and more fun hiking, paddleboarding, swimming, and even gardening would be with a strong core and sense of balance.)

Better than Drugs or Surgery

In fact, physical therapy is often considered a healthier, alternative treatment to more traditional ones. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends physical therapy as one of several nonpharmacologic therapies for effectively relieving chronic pain instead of—or in conjunction with—highly addictive opioids. 

“Across the profession, we’re seeing more and more patients who are accessing physical therapy before opioids are prescribed, or who’ve been on opioids but realize they aren’t helping to treat or manage their underlying conditions,” says Alice Bell, PT, DPT, senior payment specialist at the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA).

PT can also be a safer option than surgery. A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine and reported on the Harvard Health Blog found that physical therapy is as effective—and less risky—than surgery for treating lumbar spinal stenosis.  In the study, 169 Pittsburgh-area men and women with this condition agreed to have surgery. Half would get undergo surgery right away, while the other half would participate in a specifically designed PT program.

Patients in both groups saw improvements as early as 10 weeks after surgery or starting their PT program. The pain continued to lessen over a four-month period while physical function kept improving. What’s more, there was no difference in pain or physical function between the surgery and PT groups two years later.

However, 25% of participants in the surgery group suffered complications such as repeat surgery or surgery-related infection. Only 10% in the PT group said they had worsening symptoms as a complication.

How (and Why) Does Physical Therapy Work?

According to APTA, physical therapists are trained and licensed healthcare professionals who diagnose and treat patients with a limited ability to move and perform day-to-day functional activities. PTs examine each individual and develop a treatment plan to help improve mobility, ease pain, restore function, and prevent disability. Top therapy treatments include: 

  1. Therapeutic exercise: Includes passive or active range of motion (ROM) to increase strength, range of motion, or flexibility. 
  2. Functional strength training: Helps you more safely and easily perform everyday activities.
  3. Gait training: From using crutches to learning proper running biomechanics, it helps improve your ability to stand, walk, and run. 
  4. Traction: Treats low back pain and neck pain.
  5. Joint mobilization: Helps decrease pain and improve mobility.
  6. Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF): Increases range of motion.
  7. Strain/countersrtain: Treats muscle and joint pain.
  8. Trigger point & myofascial release: Helps alleviate pain.
  9. Soft tissue mobilization: Lowers pain, boosts circulation, and lessens muscle tension.
  10. Heat: Increases circulation to injured areas, relaxes your muscles, and eases pain.
  11. Ice: Helps decrease pain and control inflammation.
  12. Kinesiology taping, or K-tape: A flexible fabric that pulls and stretches as you move to help with muscle inhibition/facilitation, manage bruising and swelling, and lessen pain.

How Long Do I Need to Do Physical Therapy?

You may wonder how long it takes for physical therapy to work. It depends on each individual patient, their condition, and their ability or willingness to complete their course of care

There’s a better way to look at the length of treatment. “Rather than setting a date to complete therapy by, set various goals that you would like to achieve during your rehabilitation program,” says Laura Inverarity, DO, a board-certified anesthesiologist and PT expert. “Make this your focus, not time. Reward yourself for achieving these goals, regardless of the time taken to reach them. Your physical therapist can help you set these therapy goals and can help keep you on track.”

Should You Do At-Home Physical Therapy?

PT can be completed in a variety of settings, from a hospital to a sports clinic—and even at home! In fact, at-home or at-work physical therapy can help you heal faster since you get more time with your PT, enjoy a more personalized treatment, and are more likely to follow through on your treatment plan. And that’s great news because healing is what physical therapy is all about.

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