Physical Therapist: Your Expert in Regaining Strength & Mobility

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is a physical therapist?

A physical therapist (PT) specializes in improving and restoring mobility, movement, strength, flexibility, balance and coordination in people of all ages. A PT evaluates and treats injuries and movement problems with exercises and other physical methods. PTs can often help people avoid surgery, as well as prevent and minimize pain, loss of function, and disability.

A PT typically: 

  • Reviews and evaluates a patient’s medical history and his or her mobility and physical functioning

  • Tests and measures balance, coordination, strength, range of motion, posture muscle performance, respiration, and motor function

  • Diagnoses movement dysfunctions

  • Works with patients to develop an individualized treatment plan based on their medical history, lifestyle, personal needs, and fitness and mobility goals

  • Prescribes exercises and other physical treatment techniques

  • Evaluates treatment progress and makes adjustments to the plan as needed

  • Educates patients about home techniques to optimize mobility, strength, and overall fitness

  • Consults and collaborates with a patient’s entire medical and rehabilitation team

Who should see a physical therapist?

Many people will see a physical therapist (PT) when their doctor diagnoses a disease, injury, disorder or condition that affects or limits mobility, balance, strength, posture, motor function, flexibility, or coordination. Physical therapy can benefit people with a wide variety of conditions, including cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), pregnancy, stroke, heart failure, hip fracture, and knee replacement.

People with pain from arthritis, herniated discs, osteoporosis, overuse injuries, and sprains can also benefit from physical therapy. In some cases, a course of physical therapy may reduce or eliminate the need for surgery or pain medication.

When should you see a physical therapist?

Depending on the laws of your state, you may or may not need a doctor’s referral to see a physical therapist (PT). You should also check with your insurance plan, Medicare plan, or other healthcare plan to see if you need to get a doctor’s referral before seeing a PT.

Consider seeking care from an experienced physical therapist if you develop any of these symptoms or conditions:

  • Chronic fatigue, muscle pain, or swelling in the arms or legs

  • Decreased range of motion of a joint or other body part

  • Delayed motor development in a child

  • Desire to prevent athletic or work injuries and maximize performance

  • Disability or reduced ability to perform the activities of daily living

  • Discomforts of pregnancy, such as pelvic or back pain

  • Joint pain or swelling

  • Overweight and obesity

  • Poor tolerance of exercise or activities

What conditions and diseases does a physical therapist treat?

A physical therapist provides exercise and other therapies for conditions and diseases including:

What tests does a physical therapist perform or order?

A physical therapist can perform a wide variety of assessments and measurements including:

  • Ambulation tests including time, gait and posture tests

  • Balance tests including reach tests, dizziness tests, coordination tests, and fall evaluations

  • Functional status tests including cognition, thinking, attention, quality of life evaluation, daily activities evaluation, stroke disability evaluation, motor function, pain scales, and fatigue ratings

  • Pediatric evaluations including developmental scales, balance tests, and disability scores

  • Physical examination including vital signs, reflexes, anthropometrics (height, weight, or size of the body or body parts), body mass index, range of motion, endurance, muscle performance, and strength

What procedures and treatments does a physical therapist perform or order?

A physical therapist can order or perform various procedures and treatments including: 

  • Chest physiotherapy including deep breathing, coughing exercises, and applying force (percussions and vibrations) to the chest to loosen phlegm and make it easier to cough up

  • Gait and treadmill training including therapy to improve balance, stability, and walking speed

  • Hydrotherapy including individual and group exercise programs performed in a heated pool to decrease muscle stiffness, spasms and pain

  • Joint mobilization and range-of-motion exercises including manual manipulation by the physical therapist to improve movement of stiff or painful joints

  • Mobility aids including canes, crutches, walkers, and wheelchairs

  • Orthotics and prosthetics including the proper use and care of prosthetic limbs

  • Specialized treatments including soft-tissue massage, vestibular (inner ear) rehabilitation, wound care, lymphatic drainage, and pelvic strengthening exercises for urinary incontinence

  • Spinal manipulation including manual mobilization by the physical therapist to improve movement of the spine

  • Therapeutic exercises including exercises to improve balance, endurance, cardiovascular health, strength, flexibility, and movement, while balancing the limitations of illness, disease or injury

  • Therapeutic techniques including hot and cold therapy, traction, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), therapeutic ultrasound, laser therapy, and electrical muscle stimulation (EMS)

Physical therapist training and certification

All states license physical therapists (PTs) and regulate physical therapy practice. However, requirements vary somewhat from state to state. The qualifications of a PT typically include:

  • Graduation from an accredited physical therapy program with a master’s degree or a doctoral degree (Doctor of Physical Therapy, DPT)

  • Passage of the National Physical Therapy Examination administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy

  • State licensure

Most states require PTs to participate in a continuing education program in order to maintain licensure.

Physical therapists can pursue additional education and training to become a Board-Certified Clinical Specialist. The certification program was developed by the American Physical Therapy Association and is governed by the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialists. Specialties include:

  • Cardiovascular and pulmonary therapy focuses on treating people with heart and lung diseases or those who have had heart or lung surgery.

  • Clinical electrophysiology focuses on wound management and using electrotherapy and physical agents including transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS).

  • Geriatrics focuses on treating diseases and conditions of older adults including cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, incontinence, balance problems, and osteoporosis.

  • Neurology focuses on treating people with neurological disorders including cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, and brain and spinal cord injury.

  • Orthopedics focuses on treating people with injuries and disorders of the bone, muscle and joints.

  • Pediatrics focuses on treating diseases and conditions of childhood such as developmental delays.

  • Sports focuses on treating injuries and conditions of athletes.

  • Women’s health focuses on treating women health issues related to pregnancy and childbirth including incontinence and pelvic pain.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2017 Nov 17
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. About Physical Therapists (PTs) and Physical Therapist Assistants (PTAs). American Physical Therapy Association.
  2. About Specialist Certification. American Board of Physical Therapy Specialists.  
  3. Exam Candidates. The Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy.  
  4. Licensure. American Physical Therapy Association.  
  5. Symptoms and Conditions. American Physical Therapy Association.