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Which Type of Physical Therapy Is Best for You?

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Since its roots in the early 20th century, when it emerged as a way to treat patients (wounded soldiers returning from World War I), physical therapy has evolved into an indispensable part of modern health care. Today, over 250,000 physical therapists are employed in the United States alone, a testament to the field’s growing significance. But here’s the kicker — physical therapy isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. From helping children with developmental delays to aiding seniors in regaining mobility, it spans across all age groups and various medical conditions.

Whether you’ve twisted your ankle on the soccer field, are navigating the nuances of aging, or are living with a chronic illness, there’s a specialized form of physical therapy tailored to your individual needs. We’re going to delve into these different forms of physical therapy, giving you the insights you need to make an informed decision about your own path to wellness.

Orthopedic Physical Therapy

Orthopedic physical therapy focuses on treating conditions that affect the musculoskeletal system, which includes your bones, muscles, joints, and tendons. The aim is to restore function and movement, reduce pain, and prevent further injury. Imagine this form of therapy as a specialized toolkit designed to address the foundational aspects of your physical health.

How does it work?

A variety of techniques are employed to achieve the best possible outcomes:

  • Manual therapy: This involves hands-on manipulation of your muscles and joints to relieve tension and improve movement.
  • Customized exercise programs: Designed specifically for your condition, these exercises aim to strengthen your body and enhance your recovery.
  • Modalities: Advanced tools like ultrasound and electrical stimulation may be used to facilitate faster healing.

Is It for You?

Orthopedic physical therapy may be particularly beneficial if you’re experiencing chronic back pain, stiff joints, or the repercussions of surgery or injury. It’s well-suited for arthritis, muscular tension, and post-operative recovery.

Neurological Physical Therapy

Neurological physical therapy specializes in treating patients with disorders that affect the nervous system, which includes the brain, spinal cord, and the complex network of nerves that run through your body. Conditions like stroke, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson’s disease are some challenges it addresses. This therapy aims to improve your function, enhance mobility, and increase your quality of life when you’re facing neurological issues.

How Does It Work?

Therapists trained in neurological physical therapy use a multifaceted approach:

  • Functional training: This focuses on day-to-day activities that may have become difficult, like walking or even simple tasks such as buttoning a shirt.
  • Balance and gait training: If you stumble more than you’d like to admit, this component helps improve your stability.
  • Muscle strengthening and range-of-motion exercises: These activities address muscle weaknesses and movement limitations associated with neurological conditions.

Is It for You?

If you’re struggling with conditions like multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, or have experienced a stroke, this specialized therapy can be an invaluable asset. It’s also appropriate for those dealing with nerve injuries or chronic fatigue.

Living with neurological conditions and chronic pain is undeniably hard. Still, it’s important to remember that therapeutic options like neurological physical therapy are available to help you regain a sense of normalcy and control.

Geriatric Physical Therapy

Aging comes with its own unique set of challenges, including chronic pain and other health concerns. Geriatric physical therapy focuses on the unique physical needs of older adults. It aims to improve mobility, restore function, reduce pain, and enhance physical well-being through an evidence-based approach. Whether it’s arthritis, osteoporosis, or post-surgical recovery, this specialized therapy provides a comprehensive treatment plan tailored for the aging body.

How Does It Work?

The toolbox of a geriatric physical therapist is filled with a variety of techniques suited explicitly for older adults:

  • Strength training: Exercises that help you maintain muscle mass, muscle strength, and keep you physically agile.
  • Mobility exercises: These activities aim to improve your ability to move easily, enhancing balance and gait.
  • Pain management: Special techniques are used to effectively manage chronic or acute pain, often through low-impact exercises and modalities such as heat or cold therapy.

Is It for You?

If you’re an older adult grappling with chronic pain, mobility issues, or conditions like arthritis and osteoporosis, geriatric physical therapy is definitely worth considering.

Pediatric Physical Therapy

This is a type of physical therapy for children from infancy through adolescence. It addresses many issues, such as motor skills development, physical disabilities, and even injury recovery. The therapy aims to improve your child’s physical functions and capabilities in a caring, child-friendly environment.

How Does It Work?

Pediatric therapists utilize a mix of playful yet scientifically-backed techniques to engage your child:

  • Play therapy: Who says therapy can’t be fun? This approach uses play activities to improve mobility, balance, and coordination.
  • Motor skills training: Custom exercises help children build skills like crawling, walking, or jumping.
  • Functional training: If your child has a specific disability, training focuses on helping them perform everyday tasks more easily.

The therapy sessions are often framed as fun activities, making it easier for children to engage and cooperate. It’s like sneaking vegetables into a smoothie — good for them but wrapped in a package they enjoy.

Is It for You?

Pediatric physical therapy could be invaluable if your child faces physical or developmental challenges such as cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, or even sports-related injuries.

Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation

This is designed for people dealing with heart or lung issues, such as coronary artery disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or after experiencing events like a heart attack or surgery. The focus is on improving cardiovascular fitness, lung function, and overall endurance to optimize your quality of life.

How Does It Work?

The therapy is often a blend of the following:

  • Exercise training: A structured, supervised exercise program tailored to your specific needs and limitations.
  • Education and counseling: You’ll receive valuable insights into managing your condition, including dietary advice and lifestyle changes.
  • Breathing techniques: Special methods to help improve lung function and make everyday activities less exhausting.

You’ll collaborate closely with your therapist to monitor progress and adjust your physical therapy treatment plan. The goal is to manage your symptoms and give you the tools to lead a more active and fulfilling life.

Is It for You?

This rehabilitation can offer significant benefits if you’re dealing with chronic heart or lung conditions or recovering from cardiac or pulmonary surgery.

Sports Physical Therapy

This is tailor-made for athletes and active people dealing with injuries or aiming to improve performance. It focuses on fast recovery, rehabilitation, and prevention of sports-related injuries. Whether you’re a weekend warrior or a professional athlete, this form of therapy aims to get you back in the game as safely and quickly as possible.

How Does It Work?

The core components often include:

  • Biomechanical analysis: A thorough assessment of your movements to identify imbalances or weaknesses that might make you prone to injuries.
  • Injury-specific exercises: A set of exercises designed to target your specific injury, ensuring a quicker and more effective recovery.
  • Prevention strategies: Techniques and exercises to prevent future injuries, because nobody wants to spend more time on the bench than on the field.

Working closely with your therapist, you’ll follow a structured plan that adapts as your needs and condition improve.

Is It for You?

If you’re an athlete or someone who enjoys an active lifestyle, sports physical therapy could be a crucial part of your recovery and ongoing performance. Whether you’re dealing with a chronic issue like tendonitis or recovering from a more acute injury like a sprained ankle, this specialized form of therapy can help you regain your former athletic prowess.

Women’s Health Physical Therapy

This is designed to address the unique physical challenges women face across various stages of life. Whether it’s pregnancy-related discomfort, pelvic floor dysfunction, endometriosis, or issues related to menopause, this specialized therapy focuses on the unique needs of the female body.

How Does It Work?

Treatment often includes a mix of the following:

  • Pelvic floor exercises: These are aimed at strengthening the muscles that support your pelvic organs, improving issues like incontinence or pelvic pain.
  • Postpartum care: Tailored exercises to help regain muscle strength and tone following childbirth.
  • Manual therapy: Hands-on techniques may alleviate pain or improve function in specific areas of concern.

Your therapist will work with you to develop a treatment plan based on your particular symptoms, lifestyle, and goals. The approach is personalized, considering the nuances of a woman’s physiology.

Is It for You?

Women experiencing issues like urinary incontinence, pelvic pain, pregnancy-related discomfort, or challenges associated with menopause could benefit significantly from this form of therapy.

Other Specialized Types of Physical Therapy

You may have tried more general forms of physical therapy and haven’t found the right fit. Or you may have a condition that needs targeted physical therapy treatment, and you’re unsure where to look.

Beyond the well-known types of physical therapy like orthopedic and neurological, specialized branches tailored for specific conditions or needs could offer you the exact kind of support you’ve been searching for.

  • Aquatic physical therapy: Ideal for those with joint pain or arthritis, this therapy uses the buoyancy of water to make exercise more accessible and less painful.
  • Oncology physical therapy: Designed to help cancer patients manage symptoms and side effects of treatments, this therapy aims to improve quality of life during or after cancer care.
  • Vestibular rehabilitation: Focuses on issues related to balance and dizziness, often linked to inner ear disorders.
  • Hand therapy: Specializes in conditions affecting the hands and upper extremities, such as carpal tunnel syndrome or after surgical procedures on the hand.
  • Pediatric orthopedic physical therapy: Tailored for children with musculoskeletal issues, this therapy aims to improve mobility and function in young patients.
  • Animal physical therapy: While not for humans, this specialized field focuses on rehabilitating animals recovering from injuries or surgeries.
  • Lymphedema therapy: Aimed at managing lymphatic fluid build-up and swelling, often seen in cancer patients or those undergoing certain types of surgery.
  • Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) therapy: Focuses on issues related to the jaw and face, helping to manage pain and improve function in the jaw joint.
  • Wound care therapy: Specializes in the treatment and speedy healing of both acute and chronic wounds.
  • Pelvic health physical therapy: Beyond the scope of women’s health physical therapy, this focuses on pelvic issues in both men and women, addressing conditions like incontinence, pelvic pain, and more.
  • Industrial rehabilitation: Designed for workers, this therapy aims to improve ergonomic practices and minimize the risk of work-related injuries.
  • Sports concussion therapy: Focuses on the safe rehabilitation of athletes after a concussion, ensuring a safe return to sport.
  • Amputee rehabilitation: Specialized therapy for those who have lost a limb, focusing on mobility training and prosthetic adaptation.
  • Spinal cord injury rehabilitation: Focuses on helping people regain function and independence after a spinal cord injury.
  • Chronic pain management therapy: Specialized therapy for managing long-term pain conditions, incorporating techniques like biofeedback, mindfulness, and targeted exercise.

Each specialized type aims to offer targeted interventions for specific conditions or needs, expanding the scope of how physical therapy can improve quality of life.

Unconventional Types of Physical Therapy

Physical therapy has a long-established repertoire of techniques like manual manipulation, exercise prescription, and electrotherapy. However, unconventional methods have emerged in recent years, often based on emerging research or adapted from traditional practices. Here are some less conventional types of physical therapy:

Virtual Reality (VR) Therapy

Virtual reality technology is increasingly used in physical therapy settings to create immersive environments where patients can perform guided exercises. This method is particularly effective for stroke rehabilitation and patients who need to improve their balance and coordination.


Derived from the Greek word “hippos” for horse, hippotherapy involves using horseback riding as a therapeutic treatment. The horse’s natural gait is believed to improve the rider’s posture, balance, and joint mobility. It’s often used for children with developmental delays or those with neurological conditions.

Dance/Movement Therapy

While dance has been an expressive art form for centuries, its application in physical therapy is gaining more acceptance. Dance therapy can help improve motor skills, balance, and coordination and is sometimes used for patients with Parkinson’s disease or those undergoing psychological rehabilitation.

Craniosacral Therapy

This method involves light touching to manipulate the synarthrodial joints of the cranium. It’s said to relieve tension and improve physical conditions, although it’s among the more controversial methods in terms of scientific backing.

Myoelectric Orthotics and Prosthetics

While orthotics and prosthetics are not new, advancements in technology have led to the development of myoelectric devices controlled by electrical signals from the patient’s muscles. These devices offer a greater range of motion and more natural movement than traditional models.

Feldenkrais Method

Named after its originator, Moshe Feldenkrais, this method improves human functioning by increasing self-awareness through movement. The therapy involves verbally guided exercises and gentle hands-on manipulation.

Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES)

In FES, tiny electrical impulses stimulate the peripheral nerves, activating muscles that have lost their function due to injury or illness. This technique is often used for stroke patients and those with spinal cord injuries.

Yoga and Tai Chi

Though traditionally not considered physical therapy, some practitioners are incorporating Yoga and Tai Chi as therapeutic modalities. They offer gentle ways to improve flexibility and strength and are often recommended for chronic pain management.

These unconventional types of physical therapy offer new avenues for patient care and are being researched for their effectiveness in treating various conditions. As always, consult with health care professionals for diagnosis and treatment tailored to individual needs.

Will Insurance Cover Physical Therapy Visits?

One of the most pressing concerns for many people considering physical therapy is whether their insurance will cover the costs. The answer to this question can significantly influence your decision to proceed with therapy, how often you attend sessions, and even which therapist or facility you choose. Here are some critical considerations:

Policy Specifications

Insurance policies vary greatly when it comes to physical therapy coverage. Some plans cover only a specific number of sessions per year, while others may provide coverage as long as the therapy is deemed medically necessary. You must read the fine print in your policy or speak with a customer service representative to understand the specifics.

Co-payments and Deductibles

Even if your insurance covers physical therapy, you may still be responsible for co-payments or deductibles. A co-payment is a fixed amount for each therapy session, whereas a deductible is a set amount you must pay before your insurance coverage kicks in. Understanding these out-of-pocket costs upfront will help you budget your physical therapy treatment plan better.

In-Network vs. Out-of-Network

Your insurance plan often has a list of in-network providers, facilities, or therapists with agreements with your insurance company. Going to an in-network provider is generally more cost-effective than going out-of-network. However, out-of-network options may provide specialized services or shorter wait times that you find valuable, albeit at a higher cost.

Referral Requirements

Some insurance policies require you to get a referral from a primary care physician before covering physical therapy expenses. Skipping this step could result in non-coverage, leading to unexpected out-of-pocket costs. Always confirm whether a referral is necessary for your particular plan.

Coverage Caps and Limitations

Certain policies limit the types of therapy covered or impose a “cap” on the total amount they will cover in a given year. If your treatment plan involves specialized physical therapy, like aquatic therapy or neurologic therapy, check whether these are covered and what the financial caps might be.


Some insurance companies require pre-authorization for physical therapy services. This means that before starting therapy, your insurance company must approve a physical therapy treatment plan submitted by the health care provider. Please ensure pre-authorization to ensure a denial of coverage.

Telehealth Coverage

In recent years, telehealth services for physical therapy have become more common, but not all insurance plans cover these virtual consultations. If you’re considering remote sessions, check with your insurance to see if this is an option.

Flexibility and Emergency Scenarios

Understand how your insurance handles missed appointments or additional sessions that may be needed in emergencies. Some policies are stringent about such scenarios and may offer little leeway regarding coverage.

Never assume that your insurance will automatically cover all your physical therapy needs. Make it a priority to consult your policy details and speak directly to your insurance company to understand your coverage fully. Doing so will enable you to make informed decisions and avoid unpleasant financial surprises.

Questions for Your First Physical Therapy Visit

If you’re considering physical therapy for the first time, asking the right questions can help you make informed decisions and set realistic expectations for your treatment. Below are some key questions to consider:

About the Therapist and Facility

  • What are your qualifications and certifications?
  • Do you specialize in treating my specific condition?
  • Is your facility equipped to provide the specific type of therapy I may need?
  • How many patients do you typically see in a day?
  • Do you offer telehealth services for consultations or follow-ups?

Diagnosis and Treatment Plan

  • What is your assessment of my condition and mobility limitations?
  • What will the initial evaluation involve?
  • What is the treatment plan, and how long could it last?
  • What are the goals of the physical therapy treatment?
  • How will we measure progress or success?

Therapy Sessions

  • How often will the therapy sessions be, and how long will each session last?
  • Will I have a consistent schedule and therapist for each session?
  • Will I have exercises to perform at home?
  • What kinds of techniques or modalities will be used in the treatment?
  • Will the therapy be one-on-one or will it be in a group setting?

Costs and Insurance

  • Is physical therapy covered by my insurance, and what will be my out-of-pocket costs?
  • Do I need a referral from my primary care physician?
  • Are there any additional costs for equipment or materials?
  • Do you offer any payment plans or sliding scale fees?

Risks and Alternatives

  • Are there any risks or side effects associated with the physical therapy treatment?
  • Are there alternative treatments I should consider?
  • What happens if the treatment isn’t effective?


  • What should I wear to my therapy sessions?
  • Can I bring a family member or friend for support during the sessions?
  • Do you provide any resources or educational materials to understand the treatment better?

Armed with these questions, you’ll be better equipped to navigate your first foray into physical therapy, making the experience more transparent and potentially more effective. Always remember that open communication with your health care provider is crucial for a successful treatment outcome.

Common Physical Therapy Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Embarking on a physical therapy journey may be just what you need to improve your physical condition, but the road to recovery can be challenging. Here are some common pitfalls that patients may encounter along the way and suggestions on how to avoid them:

Inconsistent Attendance

Pitfall: Skipping appointments or not adhering to the recommended schedule.

Avoidance strategy: Consistency is crucial for any physical therapy to be effective. Make sure to prioritize your appointments just like any other important commitments. Use scheduling tools or apps to remind you of upcoming sessions.

Ignoring Home Exercise Programs

Pitfall: Neglecting to perform prescribed exercises at home.

Avoidance strategy: Home exercises supplement in-clinic treatment and speed up recovery. Make it a part of your daily routine and set reminders to perform them.


Pitfall: Pushing yourself too hard during sessions hoping for faster recovery.

Avoidance strategy: Overexertion can lead to further injury. Always listen to your body and follow the guidance of your physical therapist. Communicate openly about your pain levels and limitations.

Lack of Communication

Pitfall: Not clearly communicating your symptoms, pain level, or concerns to your therapist.

Avoidance strategy: Effective treatment is a two-way street that relies heavily on good communication. Always keep your therapist informed about your feelings during and between sessions.

Unrealistic Expectations

Pitfall: Expecting quick results and getting discouraged if progress seems slow.

Avoidance strategy: Understand that physical therapy is often a gradual process. Set achievable goals with your therapist and celebrate small wins to keep yourself motivated.

Failure to Customize Physical Therapy Treatment

Pitfall: Following a generic program that hasn’t been tailored to your specific needs.

Avoidance strategy: A one-size-fits-all approach seldom works in physical therapy. Make sure your therapist customizes your treatment plan according to your condition and lifestyle.

Not Verifying Insurance Coverage

Pitfall: Assuming that all services and sessions will be covered by insurance without confirming.

Avoidance strategy: Always check with your insurance provider about what is covered and what isn’t. Inquire about the number of sessions, types of therapies covered, and any out-of-pocket expenses you may incur.

Discontinuing Too Soon

Pitfall: Ceasing therapy as soon as you start feeling better, even if you haven’t completed the prescribed course.

Avoidance strategy: Prematurely stopping physical therapy treatment can result in relapses or incomplete healing. Make sure to complete the entire course unless advised otherwise by your health care provider.

Neglecting Follow-ups

Pitfall: Not attending scheduled follow-ups to reassess your condition.

Avoidance strategy: Follow-up appointments help track your progress and make necessary adjustments to your treatment plan. They are crucial for long-term recovery and should be addressed.

Not Seeking Second Opinions

Pitfall: Mindlessly sticking to a physical therapy treatment plan without considering other options.

Avoidance strategy: If you’re not seeing the expected progress or have concerns about your treatment, feel free to seek a second opinion. Different therapists may have different approaches and specializations.

You’re all set to make an informed choice on your physical therapy journey. Always remember that you’re not alone. We’re all stumbling, learning, and growing together. So go ahead, take that step toward a better you. You’ve got this, and we’re cheering for you every step of the way!

Getty image by FG Trade Latin

Originally published: September 8, 2023
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