Is Your Physical Therapist Right for You?

Physical therapists diagnose and treat people with health-related problems, such as arthritis, that affect their ability to move. If you're considering physical therapy (PT) to help you manage arthritis symptoms, here's what you need to know.

How does PT help arthritis patients?

The goal of physical therapy is to restore your ability to perform normal, everyday activities by applying proven rehabilitation techniques. Physical therapy treatment can take two forms: passive and active. Passive PT, such massage, ultrasound and icing or heating joints, doesn't require your participation. As the name implies, active physical therapy requires you to move, usually through stretching or performing strengthening and aerobic exercises.

Your physical therapist will teach you how to preserve range of motion in your stiff joints without hurting them, and to build muscle strength to stabilize weak joints. He or she will probably give you exercises to perform at home. If you are overweight, your physical therapist may recommend a dietary weight-loss plan to reduce excess stress on your joints. During physical therapy, you'll learn how to safely ease arthritis discomfort and protect your joints from further damage.

How do you know if your physical therapist is right for you?

As your physician or another trusted professional to recommend a physical therapist. Here are a few things to consider when evaluating whether a physical therapist is a good fit for you.

  • Does he or she have specific experience treating arthritis patients?
  • What is the PT's highest level of education? Most PTs earn a masters or clinical doctorate degree from an accredited physical therapy program before taking their national and state licensing exams. In fact, 78 percent of 2008 physical therapy graduates hold a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree.
  • Does the therapist have at least five years of experience?
  • Does he or she keep up with the most recent research on physical therapy treatments?
  • What are the therapist's goals for your treatment, and how long does he or she expect treatment to last?

In addition to asking questions, pay attention to how the PT listens and communicates with you. Can you build a trusting relationship and develop rapport with this person? Observe the facility where the therapist practices. Is it clean and comfortable? Is the equipment modern and in good condition?

Many arthritis patients use physical therapy as an alternative to, or in conjunction with, surgery or pain medicine. In fact, in a 2007 survey, 88 percent of patients said PT was beneficial in helping them return to normal activities.