Does physical therapy work? The science behind the treatment

African American man talking with doctor in physical therapy clinic

If you have never been to physical therapy before, you may be curious if physical therapy works, especially if you have been suffering from chronic pain. Surgery and medication don’t always have to be the answer to any pain you may be experiencing. Physical therapy can provide you with pain management safely and effectively. Physical therapy can be for clients of all ages and medical history backgrounds. 

What is physical therapy?

To understand if physical therapy works, you need to know what it is. Physical therapy is treatment aimed at helping to ease pain caused by disease, injury or deformity by physical methods instead of through surgery or medications. It also can help you learn to move better, function better, and live a more quality life. A physical therapist performs physical therapy.

A physical therapist is a highly educated and certified health care professional who is a movement expert and specialist helping you improve your life from medical issues or injuries affecting your daily life. Physical therapists attend graduate school to become licensed specialists in their field. They can diagnose and treat specific injuries, disabilities, and health conditions. They can also provide wellness care to boost your fitness and well-being. On average, a physical therapy clinic can see 100 to 200 patients a week, resulting in an estimated 300 million therapy sessions conducted annually in the United States.

How does physical therapy work?

While every person is unique in personality, there are similarities in how the human body works for everyone. Every person has muscles connecting to tendons, tendons connecting to bones, and bones that create the skeletal structure that supports us as we move. 

Physical therapists are experts in the science of movement. Combining their knowledge of how and why the body moves the way it does with their client’s personal medical history, the physical therapist can then personalize a care plan to help each person reach their goals. 

As movement experts, physical therapists can identify how issues you’re experiencing are causing pain by watching you go through movements. Knowing and understanding how the body’s different systems are interconnected and work together, they can find the origin of your issue. Pain in one location doesn’t always mean that is where the problem is. For example, knee pain can result from issues in the ankle or hip, not necessarily the knee itself. According to one study, approximately 29% of those who came in with knee pain were found to actually have osteoarthritis in their hip causing the knee pain. 

Physical therapy is about helping you to restore your ability to move in the best possible way. Your physical therapist can guide you through corrective exercises and use other modalities designed to aid you in your recovery. For example, a study shows that the success rate of physical therapy for a neck problem can be up to 75% in helping with pain relief. 

Physical therapy treatment plans are as unique as the individual they’re prescribed for. One plan that fits all is not how physical therapy works. Hydrotherapy may be ideal for one person’s condition, while soft tissue mobilization best benefits another person’s condition. Your physical therapist will choose a treatment plan that will work best for you and your symptoms.

The 2 basic categories of physical therapy methods

Physical therapy works by using various methods to help restore a person’s mobility, function and strength. Physical therapy methods fall into these categories:

  • Active therapy — Active therapy methods involve exercises that actively require physical exertion from you. These exercises are designed and intended to help strengthen your muscles and help improve your range of motion during recovery. Active therapy exercises can include: resistance exercises, range-of-motion exercises, stretches, strengthening exercises, and aerobic exercises. 
  • Passive therapy — Passive therapy methods are treatments done to you rather than involving movement on your part. These can include your physical therapist manually manipulating your muscles or joints to help improve your mobility and loosen tension. This can be beneficial before transitioning into active therapy. Passive therapy treatments can also include heat and cold therapies, electrical stimulation, and dry needling

Who can benefit from physical therapy?

Physical therapy is often associated with surgery recovery or severe injury rehabilitation. However, it has been proven in studies to be beneficial for many other needs and conditions, too. Some other conditions that may be helped by physical therapy include:

  • Cardiopulmonary conditions — Cardiopulmonary conditions such as cystic fibrosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease can be helped with physical therapy treatments. Heart disease is the leading cause of death globally, causing 17.8 million deaths in 2017. Physical therapy can be beneficial for the improvement of exercise ability, improved endurance, and can help your overall health. 
  • Musculoskeletal issues — Issues caused by musculoskeletal dysfunctions like back pain or rotator cuff injuries can be helped. In a study from 2011-2013, those who had physical therapy for lower back pain had better results than those in the control group who did not receive physical therapy. 
  • Women’s health — Conditions experienced by females, such as pelvic floor dysfunction, can be helped by working with a physical therapist. 
  • Hand conditionsConditions of the hand, like carpal tunnel syndrome or trigger finger, can be improved through physical therapy. 
  • Neurological conditions — Many neurological conditions, such as stroke recovery, Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injuries, and traumatic brain injuries, can be helped through physical therapy treatments. 

SSOR can help you with your recovery or wellness goals

Our SSOR team of highly educated and licensed physical therapists is here to help you learn how physical therapy works and can help you with the issue you are experiencing. From surgery recovery to a sore shoulder, our physical therapists can provide a free screening and formulate a personalized treatment plan. We strive to provide the best care to our clients and help them work to achieve their health goals. 

Contact us today for more information or to schedule an initial appointment.