Making the Most of your Physical Therapy Experience

axes physical therapist helping patient

So you went to your doctor to discuss a pain you’ve been having, and it is recommended to go to physical therapy.  The questions start streaming in your head…”What is that? How is that going to help me? Isn’t there something I can just take to make me feel better? I’m sure there’s a YouTube video about what I could try at home?”

We all know we should exercise. Information is everywhere about how important it is to move and do all we can to live a healthy life. There are also plenty of tutorials and videos available to watch from the comfort of your home about how to “fix” every ailment out there. And they are free! You don’t have to pay a co-pay for that information! However, you are uniquely you. Your pain experience, your body, and your mind are all unique. Physical therapists are movement specialists and will guide you as to the type of activity and exercise you should do. We incorporate a hands-on approach to assessing and treating you and, most importantly, will talk with you to learn about your perceptions and expectations. During your first therapy session, you will start to develop a relationship with your PT. It’s very important for him or her to understand your goals, what motivates you, and what you expect to achieve through therapy. Without that knowledge, most likely your expectations will not be met, and your outcomes may not be as positive.

One of the most important components of a successful outcome from physical therapy is compliance to your prescribed home exercise program. These exercises will be based on a thorough assessment of your movement, strength, flexibility, posture, and what makes you feel better.  Positive responses in your pain, or improvements in your movement during your therapy sessions will guide what you need to do at home. Your “formal” therapy is only a few hours per week so that leaves a tremendous opportunity outside of therapy for you to take responsibility and be empowered to have a positive impact on your recovery. Think of your home exercise program like homework. If we all look back to our school years and the amount of dedication it took to be successful outside of school, it’s a similar scenario.

Even with instruction, only about 50% of people comply with exercise and activity programs that are recommended to them. In my professional opinion, adherence to your program is greatly improved through communication, education, and building a trusting relationship. Your home exercises don’t have to take a huge amount of time or fancy equipment. Doing just a few different exercises or making small changes in posture or movement throughout your day can make such a difference in how you feel. Lastly, there is the likelihood that you’ve probably been dealing with your condition for quite some time before you sought medical opinion. That means your body has compensated and has learned new movements or posture patterns over the course of many months or years. Therefore, it takes time and repeated exposure to new postures and movement patterns to make long lasting changes. For those who have surgery, it takes time for tissue to heal and strengthen. We often ask our patients to trust the process, and that can be hard to do. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

As you progress through therapy, you will gain strength, flexibility, mobility, balance, confidence, and functional ability. That will result in adjustments to your home program. Then there comes the time that you must “break up” with your PT. Congratulations! You’ve graduated from PT!  With that, you will be given a long-term program based on what you need, individually, to maintain what you achieved in therapy. Now is where dedication really begins to be challenged. You no longer have those appointments with your PT 2-3 times per week where you are asked how your home exercises are going. It may be hard to remain motivated to continue with your program for long term. This is especially true for people who aren’t returning to a sport or other activity that includes regularly scheduled practices or training sessions. Many times, I tell my patients to continue to schedule their exercise into their day and this is especially important with strength training and aerobic activity. Other exercises, such as mobility or postural adjustments, can continue to be peppered in throughout your day. This is all a very individual process and your PT can help to guide you to improve your success.

Don’t forget…your PT will always be a resource for you. If you have questions, reach out! Maybe you need your exercises updated or you stopped them for a while because you were feeling so good and then your symptoms started coming back. Don’t let that go on for too long. Call your PT and let them help to guide you through the situation. Remember back to that first visit with your PT when you created a relationship based on communication, expectations, and goals. That doesn’t end, and neither should your commitment to your recovery. It’s a group effort.


About the Author: Jennifer Urnikis is a physical therapist and clinic director at the O’Fallon, MO location. She has extensive experience in various outpatient settings working with all types of patients and conditions. Additionally, Jen is considered a Vestibular Rehabilitation specialist, which includes post-concussion management. She takes great pride in the relationships that she builds with her patients and believes that therapy should be an enjoyable experience, even though it’s not always easy.