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What is physical therapy?

Physical therapists help people use their bodies better after injury or illness.

When someone has an injury, illness or surgery that affects their ability to use their body, physical therapy may help.

Physical therapists are experts in the movement and function of the body. They can help people gain or regain the physical abilities they need for day-to-day functioning, working, or participating in sports or other activities.

Therapy uses physical methods, such as massage, exercises, cold, heat, water and electric currents, to improve circulation, strengthen muscles and restore mobility.

Physical therapists work in many different facilities, including hospitals, clinics, private practices, nursing homes and schools, says the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA). Therapists may also travel to a person's home or workplace.

Common reasons for physical therapy include:

  • Low-back pain.
  • Neck pain.
  • Hip fractures.
  • Balance problems.
  • Muscle strains and soft-tissue sprains.
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome.
  • A stroke that impairs movement.
  • Arthritis.
  • Disabilities in newborns.
  • A heart condition or event that limits physical ability.
Depending on the state, people may have to get a doctor's referral to see a physical therapist. On its website, the APTA has a list of the states' various levels of "direct access" to physical therapy services.

Physical therapy may or may not be covered by health insurance.

Reviewed 12/5/2022

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