Does Physical Therapy Work?

Male physical therapist working with female patient

Physical therapy (PT) is a type of rehabilitation medicine that seeks to prevent, manage or treat a physical injury or dysfunction. Physical therapy is often used alongside other medical treatments, although it can also be used as a standalone therapy to restore a patient to pre-injury condition. Students who decide to work toward a physical therapy degree will acquire in-depth knowledge of human anatomy and physiology that enables them to understand how the body works and how patients can recover from injuries.

What Physical Therapy Is Good For

Patients may be referred to PT providers for many reasons. For example, PT professionals can treat people who have been affected by the following:

  • Sports injuries
  • Motor vehicle accidents
  • Surgeries
  • Illnesses
  • Chronic disorders (e.g., arthritis)
  • Acts of violence

As diverse as these issues are, they have one thing in common: people recovering from all of them can benefit from physical therapy. A physical therapist uses a variety of treatment modalities to manage pain, improve movement and increase strength and flexibility. When patients are committed to working hard on their treatment plan, it is often possible to avoid surgery altogether. If a patient has already had surgery, a physical therapy plan can help that patient heal better. Even if a condition, such as rheumatoid arthritis, is incurable, physical therapy can help significantly by reducing pain and improving function. This allows patients to get through their daily activities with minimal strain.

Effective Physical Therapy Modalities

A physical therapy provider will first do a thorough assessment of a patient’s medical issues, relying on medical records from the patient’s primary care doctor and other providers. The PT provider will also observe how the patient moves and ask questions about the patient’s physical functioning and limitations. A physical therapist can use passive or active stretches and exercises to improve flexibility, strength and range of motion. Then, the PT provider will develop a results-oriented treatment plan that may include any of the following treatment modalities:

  • Cryotherapy: Cold packs are typically used within the first two to three days of an injury to decrease inflammation and manage pain.
  • Heat therapy: After applying cryotherapy, the PT provider may use heat therapy to further reduce pain, relax muscle tension and support healing.
  • Ultrasound: Ultrasound machines are not just for diagnostic purposes; they can also help relax tight muscles and enhance the healing process.
  • Phonophoresis: This treatment combines a medicated gel with ultrasound therapy.
  • TENS: Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation uses electrical impulses to reduce pain.

PT Success Story: Miguel Cabrera

Physical therapy works, and the proof is in its many success stories. As an example, consider the story of Miguel Cabrera, an accomplished batter in Major League Baseball. During the 2017 season, Cabrera’s batting average mystified fans by taking a nosedive. Late in the season, Cabrera was diagnosed with two herniated discs. The injury was caused by the extreme rotational force applied to the spine every time the batter took a swing.

Cabrera decided not to get an epidural injection for the pain. “I don't want to get an injection because I don't want to put a Band-Aid on my injury," he said. Instead, he chose to heal it through physical therapy. He opted for a six-week program of corrective stretches, exercises and other treatment modalities from his physical therapist. After Cabrera returned to the league the following season, his skyrocketing batting average proved that his physical therapy program had indeed worked.1

Physical therapy is a delicate, often long-term process that promotes recovery in patients with a wide range of injuries. Cabrera’s story speaks to the power of physical therapy and the hard-working professionals who provide it.

If you are passionate about helping others improve their well-being through physical therapy, consider earning your pre-physical therapy degree at Grand Canyon University. The Bachelor of Science in Exercise Science with an Emphasis in Pre-Physical Therapy prepares graduates to apply with confidence for a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program by instilling foundational knowledge in human anatomy, kinesiology, exercise physiology and other key topics. To learn more about the College of Nursing and Health Care Professions, click on the Request Info button at the top of this page.

1Berra, L. 2017, Oct., 25. Cabrera using offseason to address back issue. Retrieved September, 2020.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.