What Does Physical Therapy Look Like?

by Katherine Peters

You’re considering physical therapy to help with your symptoms… whatever those symptoms are.  Understandably, you’re concerned about what you’re getting into.  Because physical therapy (PT) is so personalized, it’s difficult to tell you exactly what’s going to happen.  But, we can give you a general idea that will hopefully encourage you to seek help and play better as a result.

It’s helpful to look up physical therapists in your area according to specialty, i.e. if you’re having trouble with your arms or hands, see a therapist who specializes in the arms and hands.  A listing can be found on the American Physical Therapy Association’s website.  You can also check review sites for medical providers in your area.

Your first visit will be an evaluation.  Many PT clinics offer what’s called an injury screening.  This session is very easy to set up and lasts about 15 minutes.  It is very inexpensive - in many clinics, it’s free.  This visit is just to see if there is an issue that warrants further visits.  The therapist may give some tips or advice and say, “If you don’t notice improvement in the next couple of weeks, let’s schedule your first (more intensive) appointment.”  This is a good opportunity to ask questions and see if the therapist seems to be a good fit for you.

In your first appointment, the therapist will do an in-depth assessment of the muscle function.  You will discuss your symptoms at length, and the therapist will physically feel the muscle groups in question.  This will likely be uncomfortable, but that is why you are there: to discover what is causing you pain.  Once the therapist has an understanding of your pain levels, the level of function in your muscles, and the level of inflammation that may be present, he or she can formulate a treatment plan.  At the end of this appointment, the therapist may assign you homework to do before your next visit.

Regular sessions will include manual palpation, manipulation of the affected area, and guided exercises.  They will be very hands-on - the therapist will be in your space for much of the appointment.  But, this is intended to give you proper instruction of the exercises and techniques assigned to you.

Early on in the process, appointments will be close together - perhaps twice per week.  Treatment in the beginning is more aggressive (translate: uncomfortable and intense), and then will ease over time.  The goal is to not need ongoing treatment, so as time goes on, the appointments are spaced further apart: one per week, one every other week, one per month, etc.  At the end of each visit, the therapist will assign you exercises and stretches to do at home.  Some of these exercises are not obvious from the get-go, and you’ll have to continue doing them, sometimes for several weeks, before you feel the difference they are making.  Some exercises will bring immediate relief and you will be easily motivated to do them.   If you do your homework between appointments, it will help the process immensely.  This is not unlike your professors asking you to practice between lessons - you’ll cover more ground by doing the work on your own.

The overall length of treatment will vary from person to person and will depend on the type and severity of dysfunction or injury, the (resilience of the patient), and the commitment of the patient to regularly do the exercises assigned between appointments.  If the therapist isn’t seeing the expected results in the expected time frame, he or she may advise evaluation for another course of treatment.  Again, the long-term goal is to not need regular visits to the therapist.  

Cost will vary from clinic to clinic.  The short injury screening will be inexpensive, perhaps even free.  The first appointment is a full assessment and will be your longest appointment.  As such, it will also be the most expensive.  The following sessions are typically 45 minutes to 1 hour and will be scheduled according to the treatment program written by your therapist.  

At any point along the way, ask questions.  Think of PT sessions as a lesson in taking care of your muscles.  After all, when we promote the health of the muscles we use to play, we make them more efficient and less prone to injury.  Play your best!