Understanding Physical Therapy

Physical therapy is a profession provided by physical therapists (PTs) who diagnose and treat people of all ages who have medical problems or other health-related conditions that limit their ability to perform daily activities. They also help prevent conditions associated with loss of mobility through fitness and wellness programs that achieve healthy and active lifestyles. 

PTs examine individuals and develop plans using treatment techniques that promote the ability to move, reduce pain, restore function, and prevent disability. They provide care in hospitals, clinics, schools, sports facilities, and more. 


Physical therapy aims to:

  • Improve functional mobility 
  • Increase range of motion and strength
  • Promote tissue healing
  • Prevent disability and pain
  • Decrease pain and swelling
  • Teach patients and families self-care 
  • Provide prevention and education

Physical therapy is often necessary:

  • After birth, to evaluate infants suspected of having disabling conditions and to recommend corrective action
  • After operations, to restore function to affected muscles and to keep unaffected muscles strong and useful
  • Following stroke, to restore movement and independent living
  • Before illness, to design programs of preventive health care
  • To help people with spinal cord injuries, sports injuries, broken bones and amputations learn to use crutches, braces, wheelchairs and artificial limbs

Physical Therapy is used to:

  • Reduce pain and improve motion in arthritic joints
  • Ease the pain of sprains and strains and prevent future injuries
  • Plan treatment programs, including physical education, for children who have neurological, orthopedic and other disorders
  • Test for exercise stress and design exercise programs for individuals who have coronary artery disease or are at risk for coronary artery disease
  • Evaluate low-back pain and eliminate functional causes
  • Rebuild self-confidence and interest in returning to an independent, active life

    The Physical Therapist’s Education

    PTs must have a graduate degree from an accredited physical therapy program before taking the national licensure examination. The minimum educational requirement is a master's degree, yet most educational programs now offer the doctor of physical therapy (DPT) degree. Licensure is required in each state in which a physical therapist practices.

    Physical Therapist Assistants (PTAs) provide physical therapy services under the direction and supervision of a physical therapist. PTAs must complete a 2-year associate's degree and are licensed, certified, or registered in most states.

    Individualized Treatment Plans

    A PT consults and works closely with an individual's physician, other health care practitioners and the individual in setting treatment objectives that are realistic and consistent with the individual's needs. This includes reviewing the individual's medical records, evaluating him or her and identifying the problem(s).

    PTs perform tests and evaluations that provide information about joint motion, condition of muscles and reflexes, appearance and stability of walking, need for and use of braces and artificial limbs, function of the heart and lungs, integrity of sensation and perception and performance of activities required in daily living.

    Along with the patient and other health care practitioners, the physical therapist shares the hard work and commitment needed to accomplish each individual's successes.