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:
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.
Here’s my problem….I have severe scoliosis, had spinal fusion of the lower curve at age 14, and the upper curve, which had initally improved following surgery to the point they felt no further surgery was needed, is now, almost 20 years later, worsening rapidly. I am mostly sedentary as I am generally in too much pain (complications from surgery included arthritis and eventually sciatica, plus increasing thoracic pain from the worsening upper curve) to even walk very far, and find the amount of stairs in my parents three story house very challenging. There are very few exercises I think I could even do safely, but I have gotten a referral to a PT to find out what, if any, there are. I stay way the hell away from chiro and massage people, I have found too many of them either do not know or respect what scoliosis fusion means, or how serious of a calamity rod breakage would be.
However, I have gradually been gaining weight as I get into my thirties and some of the meds I’m on have aggravated this – also I was drinking far too much soda, as the fizziness helped with my other chronic condition, rhinitis (which causes a great deal of drainage down my throat), but like your diet soda article recommends, I’ve already switched to mainly club soda/seltzer water, flavoring it with a little juice or fruit. That works just as well and I’ve never had a sweet tooth so don’t miss the sugaryness. In fact I find I now think most juice is too sweet, and I’ve switched to mostly V8 for that – not the tomato kind, as it’s hard on my digestion (years of anti-inflammatories for the arthritis haven’t helped there) but I’m trying to eat healthier overall now in an effort to lose some weight even if I can’t exercise much, or at all. I’m glad to have found your website, an Aussie friend linked me.
As my situation doesn’t really fit the scenarios described above, I’m not sure how helpful they’ll be able to be, since I don’t know of any that specifically have experience with people like me who aren’t recovering from an injury and don’t expect to get back any range of motion or activeness, maybe just a little toning and fitness at most. My situation, according to the most recent MRIs, is only going to get worse with time. I will almost certain require another fusion at some point. I’m currently trying to get on disability, but….given all that, what would be your best recommendations for losing weight for someone like me with serious chronic pain and limitations who may not be able to be active at all?
For reference, I’m 33, and 152cm, or 5 foot even, and my best weight would be in the 125-130 range. I haven’t been there since…2008, 2009 maybe. I’d been pretty stable there for at least two years before that. Before I turned 25 I was around 115 when I bothered checking, which I usually didn’t because people kept telling me I was too skinny. (My parents knew I struggled with depression and instead of the self harm that eventuated they worried about EDs instead.) I’m currently slightly over 150, though I’ve lost 10lbs since quitting soda and one of my meds.
Sorry – to clarify that last sentence, I had been up to almost 165, which was enough weight to cause extra skeletal pain, so losing weight became a necessity as well as something I’d just feel better about myself for.
It would be a good idea to know how long the therapy visit will be. That way you won’t be expecting it to last for two hours when it only lasts for forty-five minutes! If the session isn’t as long as you like, you can try and find some other therapist to help you.
Thank you for explaining to me what I need to expect on my first appointment. It will be nice to have the evaluation to find what the main source of the pain is. I feel less anxious now!
I’m glad to hear that you found our article informative! I hope you find the solution to your pain, and that you quickly recover.
-Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor
I like how you talked about making sure you know what kind of physical therapy the therapist specializes in. If you work with a specializing therapist to fix your problem, the process could go much quicker, and you may find better results. The important thing with injury is that you listen to your body and get things checked when you are in pain. My sister has had an injury for about 3 weeks that she hasn’t gotten checked, yet, and I really think she needs to see a physical therapist for it. Maybe this blog could convince her.
Hey, I’m a 56 year young man who has worked and played hard for my whole life, I’ve changed my career with hopes of easing the problem I suffer from now. I can’t stretch without hurting myself ! I wake in the morning can hardly move and I have constant pain in my legs through out the day, I’ve tried supplements, stretching, and chiropractors, and have come to the conclusion ( only after my second knee surgery due to skiing), that a physical therapist is the way to go. However my Dr (gp) and insurance company state I don’t have a clinical issue, WELL I’M IN F#=+&$G PAIN !! And I need help ! I’m not ready to roll over and die. Any free advice from a hard working Joe like me who can relate to my plight.
Sorry to hear about your problem and pain William. Most general practitioners who have experienced good PT appreciate it. Honestly, if a physician specifically believes that you wouldn’t benefit from PT, they should be able to give a sound reason (as opposed to saying that you don’t have a problem). One way to go about it is to discuss what may be causing the pain, or if he believes the issue to be orthopedic in nature. Another option would be to get a referral to see an orthopedist who specializes in knees.
I love your advice to make sure you are familiar with the therapist’s experience. It really makes a difference to go with someone that has the experience you need in order to help you get better. Do you have any other tips about finding a good physical therapist? I really want to be sure that I’m doing what I can in order to find the right person to help me with my shoulder injury.
In addition to the therapists background and experience, ask about the clinic’s standard treatment policies. Some clinics may allow the PT to spend 30-60 min 1:1 with the patient, while others may only provide 10-15 min 1:1.
I like how you talked about making sure to ask about other things than just the treatment itself, such as the insurance a therapist accepts. I think another thing that is important to ask about is the scheduling process, specifically how it works and how far in advance you need to schedule. Things like that could actually affect your decision. My daughter is in need of a physical therapist, and we need to find someone that has flexible scheduling since she has activities that come up at random times.
Thank you very much for mentioning this Raisa! This is very helpful to other readers. I hope you’ve found someone for her