One spring, just as the trees were beginning to blossom in New York City, I broke my leg while running on an injury. After an emergency surgery, I spent more than six weeks hobbling around on crutches. When I was finally able to ditch them, my healing journey wasn’t quite over. I embarked on a new one: physical therapy.
While it wasn’t as dramatic as surgery or scaling crowded subway staircases with crutches, it allowed me to completely regain mobility — and walk again by late July.
Let’s get physical
While traditional therapy focuses on your mind and mental health, physical therapy focuses on the, you guessed it: physical. Physical therapists go through extensive training to help people heal injuries through exercises and movements that condition muscles and build strength.
While surgeries like mine certainly account for their fair share of PT visits, you typically don’t need to have some big accident or a diagnosed condition to need physical therapy.
“People often believe their limitations don’t warrant a visit to a physical therapist because there wasn’t an injury, like a car accident, a sports injury or some moment in time that caused a structural injury,” says Abby Halpin, a physical therapist and owner of Forte Performance & Physical Therapy. “Unfortunately, that leads to people not getting the care they need.”
In general, Halpin says, if you’re experiencing pain or reduced range of motion that impedes your ability to go about your daily life, physical therapy is probably a good idea.
Here are a few different issues you can address through physical therapy:
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Recovery from a stroke
- Sports-related injuries, like tennis elbow, runner’s knee or a concussion
- Pelvic floor dysfunction/urinary incontinence
- Joint pain
- Neck and back pain (Halpin says low back and neck pain are the most common reasons people see a physical therapist.)
What to expect at your first visit
“The first visit is my favorite,” says Halpin. “This is when a patient comes in and tells their story.”
At this first appointment, also called the initial evaluation, a physical therapist talks with a patient to understand why they came in and what they hope to get out of treatment. They will make sure to understand what the problem is, when it started and what types of activities exacerbate it. They typically check in on what you do for work or fun to understand what physical demands you’re facing on a daily basis.
During the evaluation, the PT might also touch or move your body in certain ways to assess mobility and better understand what is causing pain or impeding movement. Based on this assessment, they will create a recovery plan, which will include a set of exercises and lifestyle changes patients can work with at home.
What happens next
Subsequent appointments are all about measuring progress. You’ll perform the exercises you’ve been doing at home in order to show the therapist how you’re progressing, and discuss whether things are feeling better or worse.
Your physical therapist might also perform some manual treatments, such as massage or moving joints around in the socket, or hook you up to a small device that uses an electric current to relieve pain. (This is called transcutaneous electrical neuromuscular stimulation.)
Physical therapy sessions generally last about 30 to 60 minutes. You may go weekly, every other week or several times a week. Your schedule depends on your particular issue.
The lowdown on recovery
In short, your recovery time really depends on the extent of your injury. “This is a very specific case by case scenario that’s determined by the patient’s progress and the professional’s opinion,” says Sandra Gail Frayna, a physical therapist and founder of Hudson Premier Physical Therapy & Sports.
Here are some of the factors that will determine your recovery time:
- The severity of the injury For instance, I went to PT for way longer after breaking my femur than when I got a small fracture in my wrist. (I’m accident-prone.)
- The injured body part Different parts of your body heal at different rates. While soft tissue and bone tend to heal in about six to eight weeks, ligaments and tendons may take months.
- Your age. The healing process slows down with age, so the older you are, the longer you’ll likely need to recover.
- Your insurance coverage. Unfortunately, many insurance companies have a set number of PT sessions they’ll cover, regardless of a patient’s progress. At this point, patients have to choose whether to stop or pay out of pocket. You may be able to extend your PT coverage by getting a note from your doctor that the therapy is still medically necessary.
“If I had to estimate, patients may see a physical therapist for four to six weeks on average for a simple to moderately complex issue,” Halpin says.
Generally, once a patient meets the goals created in the initial evaluation, it’s time to go. If a patient isn’t progressing toward their goals, they’ll work with their physical therapist to reevaluate their goals and establish new ones. “Completing physical therapy doesn’t always mean the patient is completely healed,” says Frayna. “‘Recovery can look different for different patients and their individual needs.”
Regardless, patients typically leave physical therapy with a deeper understanding of their own body mechanics and how to move in ways that prevent injury. PT looks different for everyone, but, as Halpin says, “it’s always our goal to keep patients doing what they love as much as possible, while encouraging the changes needed so they can feel better.”