Overview of Physical Therapy

The goals of physical therapy (PT), also called physiotherapy, are to

  • promote health;
  • restore function and movement; and
  • prevent disability from aging, pain, disease, or injury (trauma).

Physical therapy is used to manage a number of chronic conditions, including the following:

  • Arthritis
  • Back pain and neck pain
  • Urinary incontinence
  • Knee pain and shoulder pain
  • Lung conditions (e.g., chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [COPD], cystic fibrosis)
  • Migraine headache
  • Neurological conditions (e.g., cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis)
  • Spinal deformities (e.g., spina bifida, scoliosis)
  • Other conditions

Physical therapy/rehabilitation often is used following surgery, and can be an important part of recovery for patients who have experienced heart attack or stroke. It also may be used to treat patients who have been involved in an accident or suffered another type of injury (e.g., traumatic brain injury [TBI], spinal cord injury, sports-related injury [broken bone; muscle, ligament, or tendon damage]).

Physical therapy can be provided in a number of different settings, often depending on whether it is designed to promote health, to prevent disability, or to provide treatment. It may be performed at home, in a school or sports facility, or at a physical therapist's office. Physical therapy also may be performed at an outpatient facility (e.g., hospital, clinic) or at a long-term care facility.

Physical Therapy Assessment

To assess the patient's condition, the physical therapist takes a family and personal medical history and performs a physical examination. The results of the examination are used to develop a treatment plan and to monitor the patient's progress.

Areas that are assessed depend on the patient's condition and include the following:

  • Balance and coordination
  • Breathing (respiration)
  • Motor control
  • Muscle strength
  • Posture (body position)
  • Range of motion

Diagnostic tests can be used to assess the function of the brain, heart, lung, muscles, and nerves. These tests include imaging tests (e.g., x-rays, magnetic resonance imaging [MRI scan]), electromyography (EMG), nerve conduction velocity (NCV) studies, and electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG).

Publication Review By: Elizabeth Isa Herrera, MSPT, CSCS

Published: 30 May 2007

Last Modified: 22 Jul 2015