Physical Therapy – Does it Work?

March 5, 2014

When physical therapy (PT) is suggested for hip knee, or back pain, patients sometimes respond “That doesn’t work for me.” or “The co-pays are too expensive.” However PT can be very effective at treating many common causes of musculoskeletal pain.  “If I walk every day, why do I need therapy?”.  This question reflects another common misconception.  While walking is an excellent cardiovascular exercise, it does little to strengthen the muscles of the hip, knee, back, or core.

Depending on your diagnosis, your physician may prescribe a combination of therapeutic modalities (such as massage, electrical stimulation, or ultrasound) together with balance and strengthening exercises.  Can you stand on one leg without losing your balance? When you walk, one foot is off the ground with every step. If your balance is poor, every step puts increased strain on surrounding joints.  Conversely, strong muscles can minimize stresses across arthritic joints.

In fact, there is more clinical evidence that strength training reduces pain from knee arthritis than there is for any other treatment, including steroid injections!  Injections into painful arthritic joints can help to reduce pain in arthritic joints temporarily so that you can participate in therapy.  The effects of therapy can be longer lasting than the short term benefit of a cortisone injection. Ultrasound and massage can also help to reduce pain and diminish trigger point sensitivity.

Some patients tell me “I do not need therapy, I will just go to the gym.”  Unlike a trainer at your health club, physical therapists must be certified and complete specialized training.  They can demonstrate how to do exercises safely to avoid further injury.  The therapist can help you develop a strengthening plan with exercises that you can do at home or at the gym.  Having a set appointment with a physical therapist will keep you committed to your routine, and they can motivate and push you to get stronger.

Not all physical therapists are alike.  Different therapists may approach the same musculoskeletal problems differently.  Once you find a therapist who works well with you, stick with them! Not all problems can be helped completely with therapy.  But even if you ultimately require surgery, strengthening your muscles beforehand will speed your recovery.  When your doctor recommends physical therapy, give it a try.  You may find that it benefits you far more than you ever expected.