The words “physical therapy” have an intimidating ring to them. For someone who’s never been to PT, it can sound like a mode of healthcare aimed the most serious of situations, like an athlete dealing with an acute injury, recovery following a traumatic accident or healing after a life-changing surgery.

And while all of those are indeed areas where physical therapy can help, PT can also be effective for even the most tedious aches and pains, like a strained back, a stress fracture from running or even lack of coordination or balance. Physical therapy can simply help people move better and feel better.

That’s because physical therapists are trained experts in movement. They earned their doctor of physical therapy degree in order to help patients improve their quality of life, decrease pain, accomplish fitness goals, become healthier and prevent future injuries. There’s a reason physical therapy has been a rapidly growing field for some time: it offers an alternative path to a healthier life, and may even help people avoid the need for medication or surgery.

Could physical therapy be the right fit for you? Here are some common myths and facts to consider this month, which happens to be National Physical Therapy Month.

Myth: I’m not in pain so physical therapy isn’t right for me.

Physical therapy can help address a number of concerns, and can even be used as preventive care. PT can be helpful to people who have certain movement limitations (such as balance and coordination), as well as for those who want to learn how to prevent future chronic pain. A physical therapist can help patients through an array of hands-on techniques, including massage, and they can also suggest exercises for patients to do on their own. A therapist can even educate patients on injury risks, and offer tips to keep them safe and healthy. For example, if a person injured themselves while running, a PT can evaluate their gait and, once they’ve healed, suggest modifications to avoid future injuries.  

Fact: Physical therapy may address physical limitations you never even considered.

Physical therapists can assess older adults for fall risks, and help them improve balance, strength and coordination. For patients with chronic lung disease, physical therapy can help retrain muscles so that they can breathe better. For people with arthritis, physical therapy can help improve mobility and strength.

In addition, the National Library of Medicine lists the following areas where physical therapy could help with treatment:

  • Back pain
  • Wear-and-tear injuries to muscles, tendons or joints
  • Pelvic floor challenges, including leakage and pain
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Cardiovascular diseases
  • Neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s, stroke or multiple sclerosis
  • Developmental challenges that impact kids

If you’ve found yourself worried about aspects of how you move and feel, talk to your doctor about whether they think physical therapy could help.

Myth: Physical therapy is painful.

While you may experience some discomfort during physical therapy, the ultimate goal is to minimize pain. If you are experiencing pain during a PT session, you should speak up so the therapist knows it hurts, and can adjust accordingly.

Fact: Physical therapy isn’t necessarily predictable.

Every patient’s treatment plan will be different. And so will every physical therapist! Regardless of the problem or the PT, you can generally expect that the first appointment will involve an assessment. The therapist will talk to you about why you’re there and what your goals are. They may perform measurements and ask you to move in certain ways. They may walk you through exercises and give you homework. Then, they may schedule your next appointment or series of appointments. It’s important to keep in mind that healing isn’t necessarily linear. You may feel better after some appointments and experience no notable improvements after others. Through the process, it’s important to trust your healthcare provider. And if you don’t trust them, meet with someone else.

Myth: Physical therapy just involves exercises I can do at home on my own.

It took years of education and training for a physical therapist to earn their doctor of physical therapy (DPT), not to mention the years of experience that they’ve accumulated on the job. Because of that, they’re uniquely qualified to understand your challenges and to devise a customized plan to help you. While they may, indeed, send you home with a list of exercises to do, the appointment time with the therapist is an important opportunity for hands-on treatment, as well.

Myth: I have to be in good shape to go to physical therapy.

Don’t confuse physical therapists with personal trainers. While exercise may be central to both professions, physical therapists will devise a plan that’s approachable and doable (and may not even make you break a sweat!). The goal of physical therapy is to get you to a place where you can move better and feel better, regardless of where you’re starting out. Knowing that, be sure and dress in a way that will allow you to move. Wear comfortable clothing and athletic shoes with socks, so that you’re ready for anything.

Fact: Physical therapy could delay or even prevent the need for surgery.

While surgery is sometimes unavoidable, there may also be situations where physical therapy could help with healing, or at least delay the need for surgery. For example, Harvard Health writes about how physical therapy can be just as effective as surgery for a certain type of back ailment, called lumbar spinal stenosis. If you’re faced with the decision to get surgery, it might help to seek out a second opinion from a doctor or specialist, or even make an appointment with a physical therapist to see if they can help.

Just as diet, exercise and sleep are important to your health, so is movement. If you have concerns about the way your body is functioning, it’s possible that physical therapy could help. Talk to your doctor and ask about the benefits of PT. Or, check your insurance plan to see if physical therapy is covered, and make an appointment directly with someone in your network.