If you’re active or ever played sports, there’s a good chance you’ve experienced injury – maybe you were in the middle of a hard workout or getting competitive on the field, when suddenly you felt something pop and experienced a wave of pain. Now what? You’ll probably seek out a physical therapist to diagnose and treat your injury. But how do you know if you’ve found a good Physical Therapist, and when do you know to move on?
A good physical therapist can be extremely helpful for a variety of problems, from post-surgical care, to preventative care, to diagnosing common orthopedic and neurological conditions. What do you look for when selecting a physical therapist to work with? Here are a few qualities that set apart the good and the great.
Understand The 3 Components of Physical Therapy
Physical therapy is a balance between science, art, and experience, and your physical therapist should have a blend of all three:
1) Science-Based Practice: The practice of physical therapy is constantly evolving, so to remain current, therapists should regularly follow scientific journals and attend continuing education seminars to hone their skills, increase their knowledge base, and understand the latest protocols. During your appointment, feel free to ask your therapist why and how everything that you do in therapy can help. Your therapist should be able to clearly communicate the benefits of what they’re doing.
2) Treatment Style (Art): In addition to finding a physical therapist that specializes in your area of need, try to find a PT with a treatment style that matches what you want. Some PTs are extremely skilled with certain types of manual therapy like ART or Cupping Therapy, which require extra training via residencies, fellowships, or year-long courses. Other PTs might be movement correction specialists or be more exercise-based. All PTs should be able to do both manual therapy and exercise, and all should be attentive to what approaches may be best for you in the short- and long-term.
3) Experience & Area of Specialty: Do they primarily work with people who have conditions like yourself? Experience with your specific injury or issue can help your physical therapy treatment be more effective.
An excellent physical therapist should have these three traits (science, art, and experience) and combine these skills to meet your individual needs. Because each person is unique, different factors will influence their recovery. A skilled physical therapist should be able to adapt the plan of care to best suit their patient’s needs and preferences.
Finding the best therapist for you can take some trial-and-error, but these 7 questions should help you simplify and speed the process.
7 Questions To Ask a Physical Therapist
1. What type of insurance do you accept?
Although this question might be boring, it could greatly affect the therapists you can see. Get this question out of the way right off the bat so you know which clinics accept your insurance and which ones don’t.
While the government might have granted you the freedom to choose any physical therapist you want, your insurance might place some limitations on who you can see and how many visits you can have. Find out if your insurance is in-network with a specific physical therapy clinic before you book your first appointment so you avoid any unexpected surprises – like paying out-of-pocket for your initial visit.
If you can afford it, you might want to consider seeing a physical therapist who’s not in-network with your insurance if they have the skills and experience to help you optimally recover from your specific injury. A great physical therapist will be able to treat and evaluate more efficiently, which in the end may save you on your number of visits or more expensive referrals to other health practitioners.
Explore your options and then make the best decision for you.
2. What type of therapy does the physical therapist specialize in?
There are many different types of physical therapy, including orthopedics, sports, pediatrics, cardiovascular & pulmonary, geriatrics, and more. If you’re experiencing pain, or muscular or skeletal injury, you should look for an orthopedic or sports physical therapist. Therapists with these specializations should be able to assess and diagnose your injury, use appropriate manual therapy techniques, and guide you through exercises to build strength and correct muscular imbalances so you can return to your activity or sport stronger than you were before.
3. What injuries and conditions do they have experience with?
Seeing a physical therapist who specializes in your specific injury or condition could increase the efficacy of your treatments and home-exercise workouts. They should have a better idea of the manual therapy techniques and corrective exercises that can have the greatest benefit per visit.
Take some time to check out the physical therapy clinic’s website and read the bios of the PTs that work there, and you should get an idea of each therapist’s area of expertise.
4. Does the therapist focus more on manual therapy during the session, or is the person more exercise-based?
Both manual therapy and rehab exercises are crucial to optimizing your recovery from injury. Choosing a manual- vs exercise-based physical therapist is somewhat a matter of preference, but could also influence your recovery depending on your injury.
According to world-class physical therapist Charlie Weingroff, “Training equals rehab. Rehab equals training.” Keep that in mind when choosing your physical therapist.
5. How much time do I get with the therapist per appointment?
At some locations, you’ll receive as much as 45min to an hour of attention from your physical therapist, while at others you might only receive 30min. Some clinics will have you start with a physical therapist and end with a physical therapy aide. Find out how much time you’ll get per appointment and who is guiding your rehab sessions.
If you find that your therapist is not as attentive to your needs, is not specifically tailoring your treatment to your goals, or even worse, over-relying on physical therapy aides or non-licensed personnel to deliver the majority of your treatment, consider looking elsewhere.
6. How often are passive treatments used in physical therapy sessions?
In the past, passive treatments were a more common part of physical therapy. Examples include ultrasound, electrical stimulation, laser therapy, and traction machines. Modalities like these should only be one small component of your overall treatment. If your care consists of mostly modalities without other forms of treatment, consider going to a new facility.
7. What should I expect on my first appointment?
During your first visit, the physical therapist should conduct an initial evaluation. Arrive prepared by wearing comfortable athletic clothing that you can move pretty freely in.
A physical therapy evaluation is usually much more involved and detailed than an evaluation you may receive from a general practitioner. That’s because the human body, injury, and pain are typically more complex than people realize. This is why it’s so hard to give simple answers to seemingly simple questions like, “Why does my back hurt”.
The initial evaluation takes into account your subjective answers to questions regarding your condition as well as the results of multiple physical examinations. The more a physical therapist knows about what you have going on, the more specific the treatment can be. Be ready to answer basic questions such as:
What specifically causes your pain?
What does it feel like?
Where specifically is your pain?
Does it come and go, or is it always present?
What are your goals for physical therapy?
Are there movements or activities that you would like to be able to do again?
The more you tell a PT, the more focused we can make your treatment plan.
How to Make Your Physical Therapy Sessions More Effective
Once you find the right physical therapist for you, what’s something you can do to make your Physical Therapy sessions more effective?
Communication is a critical aspect of successful physical therapy. While the right therapist can make a huge difference in determining your outcome, it’s important that you acknowledge your responsibility in the recovery process as well. Find a therapist that helps you identify what you need both in the treatment room and at home.
Hopefully you feel equipped to find the best therapist to help you get back on track with your fitness goals. Do you have any lingering questions? Let me know in the comments section below.