What Is Outpatient Physical Therapy?

Outpatient physical therapy is physical therapy completed outside the home, which requires you traveling to and from a facility for your sessions. Outpatient physical therapy is what most people refer to or think of when they talk about physical therapy.

physical therapist assessing a patient's hip mobility

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Uses

Outpatient physical therapy can be carried out in hospitals, private practice physical therapy clinics, doctors’ offices, and rehabilitation facilities to help treat a variety of different muscle, joint, and movement disorders. 

Outpatient physical therapy is most often done two to three times a week for at least four weeks. Advanced cases that require a longer time for rehabilitation, primarily following a surgery, may require physical therapy for as long as three to six months. The length of your treatment will partially depend on how many visits are approved by your health insurance company.

Outpatient physical therapy almost always entails performing therapeutic exercises that help strengthen weak muscles and stretch muscles that are too tight to restore balance, improve posture, increase functional strength and range of motion, and decrease pain. 

Process

You will arrive at a healthcare facility on the day of your physical therapy evaluation to fill out paperwork. Once completed, a physical therapist will direct you to a treatment table, which can be either in a private treatment room or out in a shared gym space with other tables, equipment, physical therapists, and patients. 

Your physical therapist will first talk to you about the problems you are experiencing, how long you have had them, your prior medical history and conditions you may have, medications you are taking, whether you have had any diagnostic imaging performed, like X-rays or MRIs, and whether you are under the care of a referring physician or have sought treatment from another healthcare provider. 

While most states allow direct access to physical therapy services—where you can call and request an appointment without a prescription from a referring doctor—some facilities, especially hospitals, still require a prescription from a physician in order to treat you at their facility.

Your physical therapist will then perform a physical exam to assess your joint mobility, flexibility, range of motion, and strength. Depending on why you are seeking physical therapy services, your physical therapist may also have you perform balance tests or conduct special tests on parts of your body to help determine what area, such as tendons, ligaments, and cartilage, is specifically affected.

They will then summarize the findings and develop a plan of care for further sessions that will include different interventions to address your specific problems.

During your outpatient physical therapy sessions, you may receive the following interventions:

  • Therapeutic exercises for stretching and strengthening muscles
  • Manual therapy, such as stretching, soft tissue mobilization and deep tissue massage, and joint mobilization and manipulation, where physical therapists may use metal tools to assist in loosening tight muscles or breaking down scar tissue, cupping to decrease muscle tightness, and kinesiotaping to assist with muscle activation as part of their manual techniques
  • Balance training to improve your static and dynamic balance
  • Gait training to improve your ability to walk, including proper instruction for use of assistive devices such as crutches, canes, and walkers
  • Endurance training with cardiovascular equipment like treadmills, stationary bicycles, and ellipticals
  • Thermal therapy with the use of moist heat or cold packs to reduce pain, stiffness, and inflammation
  • Modalities such as electrical stimulation to help ease pain

Conditions Treated

Outpatient physical therapy can be used to treat a variety of different orthopedic conditions that affect the muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, and joints of the body. These include:

  • Muscle strains
  • Muscle and tendon tears
  • Ligament sprains and tears
  • Tendinopathies or tendonitis
  • Fractures
  • Arthritis
  • Joint problems
  • Herniated discs
  • Spinal stenosis
  • Nerve compression, including sciatica, carpal tunnel syndrome, and thoracic outlet syndrome

These conditions and injuries can occur and be treated in any part of the body, including the neck (cervical spine), mid back (thoracic spine), low back (lumbar spine), shoulders, elbows, arms, wrists and hands, hips and pelvis, knees, ankles, and feet.

Outpatient physical therapy can also be used to treat deconditioning and generalized muscle weakness that can result from:

  • Inactivity from a sedentary lifestyle
  • Hospitalization from infection, including COVID-19 and pneumonia
  • Chemotherapy and other cancer treatment
  • Neurological and neuromuscular conditions 

How to Prepare

To prepare for outpatient physical therapy, you should arrive dressed in comfortable clothes that allow you to move your arms, legs, and body freely without restricting your movement. You should also wear supportive footwear like sneakers.

It is helpful to come prepared with a list of questions, concerns, or complaints you may have to ask your physical therapist during your exam and evaluation. Give yourself extra time to arrive at the physical therapy facility before your appointment so you can fill out initial paperwork. You should bring the following with you to your first appointment:

  • Form of identification, such as a driver's license or passport
  • Health insurance card
  • List of any medications you are taking
  • Prescription from a referring physician, if needed

Eligibility

Outpatient physical therapy is appropriate for a wide range of different neuromuscular and orthopedic conditions. However, it may not be appropriate for people who have significant difficulty and limitations with mobility preventing them from getting to and from an outpatient center safely and independently.

For patients who have significant physical limitations and require physical assistance to get in and out of a chair, maintain their balance in standing, or walk, homecare services may be more appropriate to work on gaining strength first before attending outpatient physical therapy.

Outpatient centers typically see a high volume of patients, with physical therapists devoting their attention to more than one patient at a time, so patients must be able to have some level of independence to complete exercises and activities with supervision. Patients with cognitive impairment also may not be the most appropriate for outpatient services since the environment can be too distracting or overwhelming.

Summary

Outpatient therapy is provided at a facility that you have to travel to. It's used to treat a number of orthopedic and neuromuscular conditions, including muscle strains, ligament tears, spinal stenosis, and nerve compression. This kind of treatment is not suitable for everyone, though. If you cannot travel to the facility independently or have cognitive impairment, your doctor may recommend homecare services instead, in which physical therapy is provided at home.

A Word From Verywell

Outpatient physical therapy can be extremely beneficial for anyone experiencing any type of pain or disability in their muscles, tendons, ligaments, or joints. Many patients experience great outcomes, and outpatient physical therapy helps improve their symptoms and overall quality of life. With some injuries, it can also help prevent the need for surgery. Even if surgery is needed, outpatient physical therapy both before and after an operation can help with recovery and rehabilitate you back to performing everyday activities without pain.

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s the difference between inpatient and outpatient physical therapy?

Inpatient physical therapy is provided to patients who are staying overnight in a healthcare facility, such as a hospital or rehabilitation facility, while outpatient physical therapy is provided at a facility that patients travel to and from. With outpatient physical therapy, you will arrive at a facility, receive your session of physical therapy, and then return home. 

How do you find an outpatient physical therapy job?

Outpatient physical therapy can be provided in different facilities, including private practice physical therapy offices, physicians’ offices, multidisciplinary healthcare facilities that include other disciplines like chiropractic care, acupuncture, and massage, rehabilitation facilities, and hospitals. Outpatient physical therapy jobs can be found through job boards, healthcare recruiters, and directly through company websites of hospitals and other clinics.

What kind of clothes should you wear to outpatient physical therapy?

You should wear loose, comfortable clothing that is easy to move in when attending outpatient physical therapy. Tight, restrictive clothing will prevent you from being able to move your arms and legs properly for your physical therapist to examine you and provide you with exercises. Additionally, if manual treatment such as stretching and soft tissue mobilization is implemented in your plan of care, you may need to have clothing that can be rolled up or moved out of the way to access certain areas of your body.

Who needs outpatient physical therapy?

Outpatient physical therapy is provided for people with a variety of different conditions that require rehabilitation to restore proper functioning. Conditions that can benefit from outpatient physical therapy primarily include orthopedic injuries and surgeries that affect your muscles and joints, as well as generalized deconditioning and muscle weakness that result from a variety of different causes and affect your daily functioning. Muscle and joint pain is often the driving factor that brings patients into outpatient physical therapy.

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