What do Physical Therapists Do?

  • August 11, 2015

What do Physical Therapists Do?

Transformative Health

Whether you were referred to physical therapy by your physician or surgeon, or you feel that making an appointment with a physical therapist will help you with a health condition, you may have some questions about what a physical therapist is, and what to expect.

Physical therapy focuses on improving a person’s movement and function, whether it’s related to bones, joints, muscles or nerves. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), physical therapists, sometimes called PTs, help injured or ill people improve their movement and manage pain. Physical therapists are an important part of rehabilitation and treatment of patients with chronic conditions or injuries.

Physical therapists typically do the following:

  • Review patients’ medical history and any referrals or notes from doctors or surgeons;
  • Diagnose patients’ dysfunctional movements by observing them stand or walk and by listen- ing to their concerns;
  • Set up a plan of care, outlining goals and the expected outcome of the plan;
  • Use exercises, stretching maneuvers, hands- on therapy, and equipment to ease pain, help increase mobility, prevent further pain or injury, and facilitate health and wellness;
  • Evaluate a patient’s progress, modifying a plan of care and trying new treatments as needed;
  • Educate patients and their families about what to expect from and how best to cope with the recovery process.

Physical therapists provide care to people of all ages who have functional problems resulting from back and neck injuries; sprains, strains, and fractures; arthritis; amputations; neurological dis- orders, such as stroke or cerebral palsy; injuries related to work and sports; and other conditions.

Physical therapists work as part of a healthcare team, overseeing the work of physical therapist assistants and aides, and consulting with physicians and surgeons.

Physical Therapist Education

Today, all graduating physical therapists must earn a doctorate-level degree (DPT) from an accredited physical therapist program before taking the licensure exam that allows them to practice. Experienced physical therapists (those already practicing before the DPT mandate) may have a bachelor’s or master’s degree.

All physical therapists must pass a state licensing exam, and most states require continuing education (CE) courses in order to remain licensed.

Like many medical providers, physical thera- pists may choose to specialize in a given disorder, patient population or setting. Areas of specialization can include orthopedics, neurology, geriatrics, pediatrics, aquatic therapy, wound care, industrial rehabilitation, stroke, pain management, cardio- vascular and more. The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), the governing body of the profession, offers certifications in many specialty areas, denoting further study and experience.

In addition, many educational providers offer continuing competence courses in areas as diverse as cancer rehabilitation,lymphedema, balance/vestibular training, sports performance, pain management modalities, Pilates, and rehabilitation for the acute care patient.

 How do PTs Differ from Other Providers?

Your physical therapist is a licensed health professional who will work with you to reduce pain and improve or restore your mobility. As such, PTs manage each case with a specialized approach. Physical therapists are not:

Medical physicians. PTs will not order, pre- scribe or administer medications, or perform surgical procedures. They will not order durable medical equipment (DME) that requires a physi- cian’s prescription, nor order radiographic studies such as MRIs or X-rays.

Nurses. Physical therapists do not provide nursing services, draw blood, administer medi- cation or operate medical equipment. If you are in the hospital, your PT may assist with mobility and transfers.

Chiropractors. Although both professions pro- vide non-surgical services designed to reduce pain and increase mobility, the educational approach of each discipline is different. Some

physical therapists may employ spinal manipula- tion as part of a holistic approach to your care.

Massage therapists. Massage, manual thera- pies, and joint mobilizations are often part of a physical therapist’s diagnosis and therapeutic intervention, but physical therapists employ these treatments for specific and evidence-based health outcomes.

Certified athletic trainers. While some physical therapists work in sports performance venues and for athletic teams, physical therapists are trained to work with people undergoing rehabilitation.

Making an Appointment

You can make an appointment with a PT in all 50 states without a physician’s referral. You have the right to choose your own physical therapist and you are not obligated to receive physical therapy in any specific facility.

According to the APTA, your first visit should include an evaluation by the physical therapist to identify current and potential problems. Based on this examination and your specific goals, your physical therapist will design a plan of care to include specific interventions and a timetable to achieve them.

Your physical therapist may provide you with instructions for care at home to facilitate your recovery.

Physical therapy is covered by most insurance plans including Medicare. Some insurance policies require copayments for services, which will depend on whether your PT is in your policy’s network. You may need a physician referral for reimbursement, and may also have to meet a deductible.

Some policies place a limit on the amount of reimbursed PT services in a year. You may elect to pay out-of-pocket for PT treatment.

Learning More

Physical therapists are highly educated, licensed health care professionals who can help patients reduce pain and improve or restore mobility — in many cases without surgery or medications. They are health care profession- als who examine, diagnose, and prevent or treat conditions that limit the body’s ability to move and function in daily life.


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