Getting the Most From Physical Therapy

Physical therapists teach people recovering from surgery or with injuries, sprains or arthritis how to perform exercises that will help them gain strength and mobility and prevent recurring injury.

For the treatment to be successful, however, patients have some responsibilities, as well.

"First and foremost, you need to come to your therapy sessions motivated and with a positive attitude," says Michael Cibulka, P.T., O.C.S., spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association. "Coming to your therapy sessions in an optimistic state of mind will almost always set the stage for faster, more steady progress."

Mr. Cibulka offers the following suggestions to help you get the most from physical therapy.

  • Come prepared to work hard but not to feel pain. "It's not 'no pain, no gain;' it's 'no fatigue, no gain,'" says Mr. Cibulka. "To gain strength, you have to move a muscle to a point where it's fatigued, but not to a point where it hurts."

  • Communicate with your therapist. Not telling your therapist if something hurts or if you're unable to do a certain exercise at home, can delay your progress and recovery. "You also should have an idea of how many sessions you'll need and how your progress will be measured," says Mr. Cibulka. "Asking for progress reports as time goes by can help you stay focused."

  • Understand your treatment options. In some cases, your therapist will have several possible treatment options, and you should understand what they are, the pros and cons of each and the risks. For example, your therapist may be able to work with you at a slow, easy pace until you recover. But by taking a more aggressive pace, you may be able to recover in half the time. You need to be aware of the risks, such as an increase in pain that could slow or stop your recovery.

  • Ask why you do the exercises you do. Understanding what the exercises should accomplish can help motivate you to stick with them. "Someone who has been bedridden will be asked to do a simple exercise like moving their foot up and down," says Mr. Cibulka. "Unless they are told that doing this motion can help prevent blood clots, the person might not have the motivation to do it."

  • Do the exercises you've been asked to do at home. If you meet with your therapist only a few times a week, it's essential you do exercises at home to make progress.

  • Know what to expect after a therapy session. Asking how you might expect to feel one, two or 24 hours after a therapy session can ease your mind. "After the first few sessions, ask your therapist if swelling, pain or stiffness is normal and what you should do if it develops," says Mr. Cibulka. "In most cases, some soreness is expected, and applying ice or heat can bring relief."


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