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What to Expect at Physical Therapy

physical therapist

While your first physical therapy appointment may seem a little intimidating, it doesn’t need to be!

A physical therapist can help you with rebuilding strength and flexibility by retraining your body after injury or illness. They are your ally in addressing problems early before they progress to worse pain or dysfunction.

In this article, we’ll go over everything you need to know so you can feel confident and ready before your first physical therapy session.

What to Wear to Your Physical Therapy Appointment

What to wear may depend on your medical conditions, but typically it is best to wear loose-fitting athletic clothing like sweatpants and a t-shirt. Wear clothing that allows you to move freely while remaining comfortable, and covered.

Dresses, suits, or stiff, rigid clothing may limit the range of motion you might need to get the most out of your physical therapy appointment.

Image of weights, balls, bands or other exercise equipment that might be used for physical therapy sessions

What to Bring to Physical Therapy

Physical therapy often involves therapeutic movement or exercise, so you may want to bring a towel, water, and possibly a change of clothes.

Your therapist will be well-stocked with all the equipment you might need, so don’t worry about bringing specific workout equipment unless they determine it to be useful for your treatment plan.

As your therapy plan progresses, your physical therapist may provide you with some strength-building or flexibility equipment to build a home exercise program between physical therapy appointments.

Your therapist will have everything you need at your first appointment, so just make sure you have the things you need to make yourself comfortable while you exercise.

Image of a physical therapist having initial evaluation with a new senior client

What to Expect During Your Initial Evaluation

Physical therapists are highly trained medical professionals, and your first session is a chance to learn how their expertise can help you to feel better after an unfortunate injury or diagnosis. They are a key member of your health care team. (1)

Your first session is a chance to become comfortable with your therapist, the facility, and the plan to get the most benefit out of your time with your physical therapist.

Let’s take a look at some of the things you can expect at your first sessions.

Getting to Know Your Physical Therapist

It is important to get to know your physical therapist, as they may guide you through some challenging experiences. Your first session is a chance to make sure you feel comfortable moving forward.

Most physical therapists will assess your condition, explain the process to you, determine your ability to function normally, and document any noticeable symptoms.

Physical therapy can sometimes be uncomfortable, but gaining trust in your therapist as a guide is very important in your first sessions.

Assessing Your Condition

Your physical therapist will begin with a careful examination of the areas that are causing discomfort.

This assessment might involve range-of-motion or mobility tests, low-level strength tests, or a simple conversation to discuss when you tend to feel pain.

For example, with knee pain or shoulder pain patients, your physical therapist may analyze strength or flexibility in those areas, documenting pain in certain positions. They will also look for physical limitations, and how to relieve pain if possible. (2, 3)

Understanding your trouble spots in the first session will help you and your physical therapist to establish benchmarks for your treatment plan.

Formulating Goals and a Treatment Plan

One of the most important roles of a PT is to document all phases of your journey to monitor progress in strength, balance, or mobility..

The process begins by setting some attainable goals that you and your PT can work toward together. Your physical therapist will help to guide you toward goals that are appropriate for you within the scope of your needs and abilities.

Together you will determine your expectations for therapy, and how they relate to a realistic and timely course of care, both in the treatments with your therapist and in your home exercise program.

Image of a physical therapist assisting a balance challenged client in walking with assistive devices.

Types of Treatment You Might Receive at Your First Visit

Your initial session provides an opportunity to help your therapist identify what will or will not make your pain worse and sets a baseline for care.

These initial treatments will have you doing exercise at a level that is appropriate for your condition, while later sessions may push your limits to encourage growth and improvement.

Therapy will include various methods of treatment, from resistance or flexibility training, or manual therapy, but each session will build on the work done since the previous session.

Exercises may include resistance training with various equipment like weights or elastic resistance bands, or assisted therapeutic stretching.

If you are being treated for neurological issues likestroke or brain injury, you may be working on re-gaining walking ability using walking aids, or performing supported balancing exercises. (4)

If you are recovering from surgery, your physical therapist might help you to stretch the affected area safely to prevent further injury. Manual therapy often involves physically assessing and assisting in how to create gradual improvement in your abilities to move again. (5)

While these are only a couple of examples, there are a wide variety of treatment methods that might be used to help you rebuild your body. (6)

Regardless, your initial session will be all about you: learning what you need, what is helpful in combatting pain, and what the best course of action for better outcomes might be.

How Often You Will Be Seen by a Physical Therapist

Your physical therapy schedule will depend on the severity of your condition, where you are in the process of healing, your medical history, and your physical therapist’s recommendations. 

Many people will receive treatment once a week, while in other cases you might go to therapy more frequently, slowly tapering to once a week or less.

For more severe injuries or conditions, you may see a therapist multiple times throughout the week.

What to Expect After Your First Physical Therapy Appointment

It’s important to remember that progress takes time, and the processes that your body naturally uses to rebuild muscle and repair tissue, can take weeks, months, or sometimes years to complete.

Regardless of your condition, your PT will be your partner in marking and celebrating progress and giving you a clear idea of how you can continue to improve so you can feel like yourself again.

When Will You Be Able to Resume Your Normal Activities?

Since progress can take some time, it’s important to acknowledge gradual improvement, rather than simply assuming that you will be able to get back to where you ‘used to be.’

For instance, if you were a runner who suffered a broken ankle, your recovery will first entail building strength to walk without pain for longer and longer periods of time. Eventually, you may progress to jogging and then running.

Ways To Continue Growth After Finishing Physical Therapy

Since your physical therapy sessions will involve a wide variety of exercises, your physical therapist will provide you with a record of the exercises that have helped you to meet your goals.

In most cases, they will also encourage you to continue doing those exercises as well as other similar ones to make sure you can continue to stay strong and mobile so that your injury doesn’t return.

Conclusion

Physical therapy can seem daunting, but knowing what to expect when you walk into a physical therapy appointment can make you feel much more at ease with an otherwise intimidating experience.

Physical therapists are highly trained to assist you in your journey back to feeling better. Through careful, partnered planning with your PT, you can feel empowered to make decisions that will leave your body and (your confidence) stronger and more resilient.

References:

  1. Creighton University: https://creighton.pure.elsevier.com/en/publications/expertise-in-physical-therapy-practice-2
  2. The Annals of Internal Medicine: https://www.acpjournals.org/doi/10.7326/0003-4819-132-3-200002010-00002
  3. Chan HBY, Pua PY, How CH. Physical therapy in the management of frozen shoulder. Singapore Med J. 2017 Dec;58(12):685-689. doi: 10.11622/smedj.2017107. PMID: 29242941; PMCID: PMC5917053.
  4. Van Peppen RP, Kwakkel G, Wood-Dauphinee S, Hendriks HJ, Van der Wees PJ, Dekker J. The impact of physical therapy on functional outcomes after stroke: what’s the evidence? Clinical Rehabilitation. 2004;18(8):833-862. doi:10.1191/0269215504cr843oa
  5. Farrell JP, Jensen GM. Manual therapy: a critical assessment of role in the profession of physical therapy. Phys Ther. 1992 Dec;72(12):843-52. doi: 10.1093/ptj/72.12.843. PMID: 1454860.
  6. Mayer, Kirby P.; Carper, Ramona A.; Henson, Samantha C.; Clonce, Emily A.; Christian, Warren Jay; Seif, Sherif M.; Pastva, Amy M.; Needham, Dale M.; Morris, Peter E.. Three-Fourths of ICU Physical Therapists Report Use of Assistive Equipment and Technology in Practice: Results of an International Survey. Journal of Acute Care Physical Therapy 12(1):p 21-30, January 2021. | DOI: 10.1097/JAT.0000000000000144
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