Physical therapy is a branch of medicine that uses movement, strengthening and stretching to help people overcome an injury or difficulties with motion because of an illness or disability. Physical therapy is often used in conjunction with other treatments, including medication and surgery; other times it's an alternative to these treatments. Physical therapy is administered by health care providers known as physical therapists.
Physical therapy is useful in treating a wide range of medical conditions and injuries. If people experience a sports or a workplace injury, for example, a physical therapist can help them rehabilitate the injured muscles and joints until they're healthy again. For people with chronic movement disorders like cerebral palsy or spina bifida, a physical therapist can help them make the most of their condition, strengthen their bodies and move as well as possible.
A physical therapist’s treatment of a patient will vary widely based on the nature and severity of the person's disorder. It usually involves some form of exercise and education for the patient. Often, physical therapists will give patients “homework” in the form of at-home exercises to continue their progress or recovery.
In the most severe cases, such as a child with major disabilities, a physical therapist may begin with exercises to help the child learn to crawl or walk. Physical therapists also utilize muscle-strengthening activities to build strength after an injury or due to a disability. Water therapy may be used to help some people exercise with gentle, low-impact movements. Many physical therapy practices also involve a lot of stretching and range-of-motion exercises to restore the body’s function after an injury.
In addition to the actual treatment, a physical therapist is often responsible for assessing progress and, in some cases, determining when it is safe for an individual to resume normal activities. Frequently, a physical therapist will partner with other health care providers in helping an individual with an illness or an injury, and it’s important that all these providers communicate with one another.
SOURCES: American Physical Therapy Association; U.S. National Institutes of Health; KidsHealth, Nemours Foundation