What is a physical therapist?
A physical therapist is a healthcare provider who helps you improve how your body performs physical movements. They’ll help you manage symptoms like pain, stiffness and discomfort that make it hard to move.
Many people work with a physical therapist while they’re recovering from an injury or surgery. But rehabilitation (rehab) isn’t the only time you might work with a physical therapist. They can help you move more confidently and safely to treat certain health conditions or prevent injuries.
How long you’ll need physical therapy depends on which area of your body needs help moving better, and which issues or conditions caused you to need physical therapy. Some people only need a few weeks of physical therapy to help with a short-term issue or to recover from a minor injury. Others work with a physical therapist for months or longer to manage symptoms of a chronic (long-term) condition.
Depending on where you live and which type of physical therapy you need, you might see a physical therapist in a specialized clinic, in the hospital or even in your own home. It’s becoming more common to work with a physical therapist virtually, either on a video call or over the phone (telehealth).
A physical therapist can be part of your care team with a primary healthcare provider to treat and prevent issues that make it hard for you to move.
What are the educational requirements to be a physical therapist?
All physical therapists in the United States are required to be trained and officially licensed. They must earn a doctor of physical therapy (DPT) degree. It usually takes around three years to earn a DPT. Physical therapists also have bachelor’s degrees, too.
In the U.S., all physical therapists must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination before they can practice. Some states require additional licenses or exams.
Is a physical therapist a doctor?
They earn a doctor of physical therapy (DPT) degree, but physical therapists aren’t medical doctors (MD) or doctors of osteopathy (DO). They can’t diagnose health conditions, prescribe medicine or perform surgeries.
A physical therapist will work with you to improve your movement — usually, after you’ve seen another healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
What does a physical therapist do?
A physical therapist will develop a customized set of exercises and movements to help you move your body. They’ll help you:
- Manage pain.
- Improve your range of motion (how far you can safely move a part of your body).
- Reduce symptoms from a health condition that affects your mobility.
- Recover from injuries and prevent future damage.
What are the benefits of physical therapy?
Your physical therapist will customize treatment to help you meet your goals for improved movement. They’ll develop a therapy routine that specifically addresses your symptoms and issues. Physical therapists can work on any system in your body that controls your movement, including your:
- Musculoskeletal system.
- Nervous system.
- Cardiopulmonary system.
- Integumentary system.
They’ll help you strengthen parts of your body throughout any of these systems, including your:
- Brain, your nerves and the ways they deliver messages to other parts of your body.
- Skin and how you touch and feel objects.
What are the types of physical therapy?
Physical therapists use a combination of hands-on techniques (like moving part of your body themselves) and exercises or movements you perform with their supervision. Some types of physical therapy you might need include:
- Strength training.
- Heat or cold therapy.
- Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS).
What kinds of conditions does a physical therapist treat?
Physical therapists can treat any issue that makes it hard for you to move or use your body.
A healthcare provider might suggest physical therapy to treat common conditions, including:
- Back pain.
- Carpal tunnel syndrome.
- Urinary incontinence.
- Trigger finger and trigger thumb.
You might need physical therapy after an injury or trauma, especially if you’ve experienced:
- A spinal cord injury.
- Rotator cuff tears.
- Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders.
Physical therapists also treat long-term (chronic) conditions that make it hard to move, including:
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
- Cerebral palsy.
- Multiple sclerosis (MS).
- Muscular dystrophy.
- Parkinson’s disease.
- Cystic fibrosis.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
What is the difference between physical therapy, physiotherapy and kinesiotherapy?
There’s no difference between physical therapy, physiotherapy and kinesiotherapy.
All of these terms refer to the same kinds of treatment. No matter what you call it, your physical therapist will help you move better and more confidently.
Providers and patients in the United States usually refer to physical therapy as the treatment and physical therapists as the providers who perform it.
It’s more common to hear about physiotherapy and physiotherapists in countries outside the U.S. People who aren’t from the U.S. sometimes call physical therapy kinesiotherapy.
Physical therapy vs. occupational therapy
Physical therapy and occupational therapy both help you move your body better or more safely. The difference between them is their end goal.
Physical therapy is usually focused on treating a specific area of your body. You might need physical therapy to reduce symptoms of a health condition, like pain and stiffness, or while you’re rehabbing after an injury or surgery.
Occupational therapy is more focused on helping people improve their ability to do common, daily tasks and live as self-sufficiently as possible. The “occupation” in occupational therapy doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve lost your ability to do your job or get back to work after an injury. Occupation is a general term providers use to mean any of the daily tasks you do. An occupational therapist will help you improve your ability to do tasks like use a computer, shop for groceries or get dressed.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
A physical therapist can be an important member of your healthcare team. They’ll help you improve how much (and how comfortably) you can move your body.
You might need short-term physical therapy while you’re recovering from an injury, or as part of your rehab after surgery. Other people work with physical therapists to manage long-term conditions that affect their ability to move and control their bodies.
Talk to a healthcare provider if you notice any new symptoms, like pain or stiffness — especially if you’re having trouble moving a part of your body the way you usually can.