An Overview of Orthopedic Physical Therapy

If you have an injury or illness that affects your bones, joints, muscles, tendons, or ligaments, you may benefit from the skilled services of a physical therapist trained in orthopedic physical therapy.

Physical therapist working with a patient
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These days, medical professionals are ultra-specialized, and physical therapists are no exception to this trend. Some physical therapists specialize in helping patients who have orthopedic conditions—injuries that cause impairments or dysfunction to various bony and soft-tissue structures of the body.

Conditions in Orthopedic Physical Therapy

Orthopedic physical therapy focuses on treating conditions affecting the musculoskeletal system, which is made up of your joints, muscles, bones, ligaments, and tendons. Orthopedic injuries and conditions may include:

An injury to a bone, joint, tendon, ligament, or muscle may cause pain, limited functional mobility, and loss of strength or range of motion. These impairments may prevent you from enjoying your normal work or recreational activities. The focus of orthopedic physical therapy is to help your injury heal properly and improve your strength, range of motion, and overall functional mobility.

After surgery, you may have specific limitations that your surgeon wants you to adhere to. Your orthopedic physical therapist can help guide you through your post-operative rehab program to get you back to your normal lifestyle quickly and safely.

Any condition that causes pain or limited functional mobility as a result of an injury to bony or soft-tissue structures in your body may benefit from the skilled services of an orthopedic physical therapist.

Tools of the Trade

Your orthopedic physical therapist uses specific tools to help you during your rehab. These may include:

While your PT may use various instruments and tools to help you move better and get better, exercise is often your main tool to help you recover fully and prevent future orthopedic problems. Exercises in orthopedic physical therapy often involve:

  • Strengthening exercises
  • Stretching and flexibility exercises
  • Exercises to improve range of motion
  • Balance exercises
  • Functional mobility exercises
  • Endurance exercises
  • Plyometric and jumping-type exercises

Your orthopedic physical therapist can teach you the right exercises for your specific condition that can help you regain your normal mobility. The exercises you do in orthopedic physical therapy may also be done at home as part of a home exercise program.

Finding an Orthopedic Physical Therapist

So how do you know that a physical therapist can treat your musculoskeletal or orthopedic condition? The best way to find out is to just ask. Call your local physical therapist and ask if they treats your specific orthopedic problem.

The American Physical Therapy Association recognizes certain physical therapists who have passed a rigorous examination related to their area of expertise. Physical therapists who are clinical specialists in orthopedics have proven to be experts in evaluating and treating musculoskeletal conditions. These physical therapists may use the designation “Board-Certified Clinical Specialist in Orthopaedic Physical Therapy.” To find a board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist, visit the American Physical Therapy Association website.

Even if a physical therapist is not a board-certified clinical specialist, they still may practice orthopedic physical therapy and be able to help you recover after a musculoskeletal injury or surgery. Asking a few friends or a trusted healthcare provider for a recommendation to an orthopedic physical therapy clinic may be all that is necessary to get on the road to recovery.

First Steps to Take If You Need an Orthopedic Physical Therapist

If you have had orthopedic surgery or have suffered a musculoskeletal injury, you should check in with your healthcare provider and ask for a referral to an orthopedic physical therapist. Your healthcare provider can help find the best PT for you.

In the United States, you have the right to seek physical therapy without a referral, a process known as direct access. Each state has a different set of laws governing direct access; check your own state's law to know the rules and regulations surrounding your ability to refer yourself to PT. Your local physical therapist can also help you obtain access to his or her services.

A musculoskeletal injury may cause you to experience pain and discomfort and have difficulty with basic functional mobility. Remember, orthopedic physical therapy may be challenging, but it should never be painful. Your therapist will work with you to find exercises you can comfortably do to get you on the road to recovery.

It is normal to feel anxious about going to see a physical therapist after an orthopedic injury. What will happen? Is it going to hurt? These questions are common, and most people start to feel at ease once they meet their physical therapist and start working toward their rehab goals in orthopedic physical therapy.

A Word From Verywell

Not all physical therapists are the same, and you may require one who is specially trained to manage your condition. A physical therapist with the right training geared to your specific condition can help you quickly and safely return to your optimal level of health and functional mobility.

1 Source
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  1. American Physical Therapy Association. About physical therapist (PT) careers.

By Brett Sears, PT
Brett Sears, PT, MDT, is a physical therapist with over 20 years of experience in orthopedic and hospital-based therapy.