The Basics of Physical Therapy

Physical therapists have a specific talent for assessing the human body and helping it return to optimal performance, from breaks to bruises to bursitis. PTs can identify and treat a variety of common diseases and movement abnormalities using cutting-edge equipment and a vast knowledge base. Despite having a variety of interesting equipment (laser therapy, anyone?), their hands may be the most beneficial tool for treatment. Enjoy this short article to learn everything you need to know about the most common treatment options for any injury that may arise.

The Evaluation

Evaluation is the initial stage in any excellent physical therapist’s therapy approach. Therapists will likely ask thorough questions about how the injury occurred, as well as perform some professional sleuthing (since the injured area may be a result and not the starting point of poor movement). According to Dr. Mike Reinold, a Boston-based physical therapist and Red Sox therapist, therapists may be able to temporarily relieve discomfort, but this will only be temporary unless the core cause of the problem is addressed.

Patients consult therapists for a variety of reasons, but the most prevalent complaints are low back discomfort, knee pain, and overuse injuries. Therapists will begin to design out a treatment plan after doing a comprehensive assessment, which will most likely include passive modalities (ice, heat, laser therapy, and electrical stimulation, to name a few). But, according to Reinold, manual therapy — a term that encompasses a variety of approaches for restoring tissue function such as massage, stretching, and exercise — is frequently the foundation for injury assessment and treatment. Just don’t expect to jump back into activity (like jogging, swimming, or lifting) right away. The usual length of care for musculoskeletal (bone and muscle) injuries, is four to six weeks.

The Process of Treatment

Are you ready to start on the road to recovery? Greatist spoke with Reinold and Babenko to break down the most efficient treatment methods for a number of diseases, large and little, before rushing to your local PT clinic blindly. Note: The following part is intended to provide general evaluations only and is not intended to replace professional medical advice, which will differ from case to situation.

Therapy Done by Hand

Ideal for: Any type of injury

Physical therapists are distinguished from other health professionals by their hands-on approach. Although the term “manual therapy” can apply to a variety of techniques, most therapists use stretching, massage, and hands-on strengthening exercises to retrain the body into optimal movement and mechanics. According to Dr. Reinold, “manual therapy is a great way to get rid of mobility constraints and help patients move better.” He also suggests that manual therapy, rather than modalities like ice and electric stimulation, should be the foundation of any therapeutic approach.


Best for Inflammation and edema caused by injuries.

Ice can be an important part of injury recovery. Ice is an efficient approach to minimize and even prevent inflammation after an injury by restricting blood vessels after application. Cold therapy can also improve manual therapy by making the joint more mobile. Although it’s tough to pinpoint the most efficient treatment, it’s been proven that applying cold packs to inflamed areas reduces swelling in soft tissue injuries.


Best for Muscle spasms and tightness after an injury.

After various injuries involving soft tissue, such as muscles, tendons, and ligaments, applying heat has been demonstrated to reduce pain and promote mobility.

The therapist can stretch the damaged area more effectively by making the tissue more elastic. Note that, according to Dr. Reinold, heat is simply one technique that can help the therapist be more effective; it shouldn’t be the major focus of a therapy plan.

Connective tissue injuries are best treated with ultrasound.

Ultrasound therapy loosens up tissues in preparation for manual therapy or exercise by using sound waves (inaudible to the human ear) to produce heat deep within the body. How it works is as follows: Therapists deliver sound waves directly — and safely — to the skin using a wand (sadly not the magical variety!). Ultrasound has also been demonstrated to speed up ligament repair in our furry cousins (rats), though additional research is needed to see if the same is true for humans.

Low-Intensity Laser

Muscle or connective tissue injuries are the best candidates.

Laser therapy stimulates healing by using precise wavelengths of light (far below the skin, so you don’t feel anything). The treatment can help reduce inflammation, muscle fatigue, and discomfort in the best-case scenario Trusted Source. It may also make it easier for the therapist to manipulate the damaged joint around with less pain.


Often the recommended treatment for disc herniation.

As we stand, our spine is constantly carrying our weight, making healing from back discomfort challenges. Traction includes separating vertebrae to provide nerves more room and relieve disc cartilage stress. According to certain studies, traction can help people with a herniated lumbar disc reduce discomfort and improve their quality of life. Because it does not require surgery, it may be a useful therapy choice for patients who cannot afford a lengthy recuperation.

Electrical Stimulation

Restoring physical strength.

It’s electrifying — no, seriously. Electrical stimulation, also known as ESTIM, is a popular therapeutic option for regaining muscle function after a catastrophic injury. Therapists can generate contractions in muscles that would otherwise be inactive by providing a little but constant electrical input. This allows for faster restoration of correct movement and function than relying solely on exercise. While ESTIM may not be able to restore movement in every situation, research has shown that it can help patients recover more quickly after ACL and total knee replacement surgery. Additional research backs up the usage of ESTIM as a viable therapy option for hemiplegic patients (those who are paralyzed on one side of the body)


Best for any injury.

Exercise is a go-to approach for treating and preventing pain, which may seem self-evident. But these aren’t just any old exercises, according to Dr. Babenko. They’ve been hand-picked to help patients move better by strengthening particular muscles and correcting any physical imbalances. Also, as Dr. Reinold points out, many injuries can arise (or repeat) as a result of a sedentary and repetitive lifestyle. (Consider hunching over your computer or poring over your Instagram feed.) Even people with the most sedentary day-to-day can avoid frequent nagging aches and pains by engaging in some form of regular exercise.

Are you ready to try physical therapy? After a first checkup, many patients might be referred to therapy by their primary care providers. In addition, new state-by-state direct access legislation now allows people in pain to go immediately to a therapist in their neighborhood but check your state guidelines for specifics.

Please keep in mind that none of this should be a replacement for being assessed by an expert and receiving professional medical advice. When you have aches and pains, you should always consult a doctor or physical therapist!

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