Setting Goals in Physical Therapy

If you have been injured or ill or have had surgery, you may benefit from the skilled services of a physical therapist to help you regain normal range of motion (ROM) and strength and restore your optimal functional mobility. Your physical therapist can assess your current situation and help you develop realistic rehab goals to help guide your recovery.

Physical therapists working with a patient
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Goals and Physical Therapy

Setting goals is the best way to achieve a successful rehabilitation outcome. When starting physical therapy, you must think what is it that you want to accomplish at the end of your program. Goals are often very individualized, but then again so is the rehabilitation process. Once you have set your goals, it is important to sit down with your therapist on the first visit and discuss them together.

Determining Goals

The goals you set should be ones that are important to you. However, they must also be realistic and attainable. If you do not abide by this rule, then you will be disappointed in your rehabilitation program as well as the outcome.

Sometimes it helps to think of your goals in terms of function and impairments. Functional goals may include:

  • To be able to walk from your bed to the restroom
  • To return to work
  • To get back on the soccer field after an ACL tear
  • To be able to sit and stand without low back pain

These goals help you get through your day-to-day activities. They revolve around the different activities — functions — that people typically do each day. Your specific functional goals depend on what you are unable to do when you start PT and what you want to do when rehab is done.

Impairment goals are those measurable variables that may not be optimal when PT starts. Common impairment goals may include:

  • Restore full range of motion (ROM) around a joint
  • Normalize balance
  • Improve full strength to a muscle or group of muscles
  • Decrease pain in a specific muscle group or structure.

How to Set Goals

After determining your goals, these should be described as your long-term goals, the goals that you want to achieve at the end of your therapy. Then, make several short-term goals that will help you achieve your long-term goal. For example, if at the end of therapy your long-term goal is to walk 200 feet without an assistive device, make 2 short-term goals of 1) walking 200 feet with a cane, then 2) walking 100 feet without an assistive device. Finally progress to walking 200 feet with no device.

Time Frame

Your therapist will help you determine an appropriate time frame for achieving your goals. This also should be within a realistic time frame and will depend on the gains that you make during your rehabilitation program. What if you don't achieve all of your physical therapy goals? Your physical therapist can help you alter your original goals to make them more attainable. Remember, your goals are not set in stone; they can be adjusted continually based on the progress of your rehab program.

Sometimes, not all goals are achieved during your physical therapy course. Your physical therapist may give you specific instructions, like a home exercise program, to help you continue working independently towards your goals once PT has ended.

Setting goals in physical therapy is an important component of your rehab program. Your rehab goals are your personal roadmap to success in physical therapy after injury or illness. Check in with your physical therapist and get working on realistic and attainable goals to help you move better and feel better.

By Laura Inverarity, DO
 Laura Inverarity, PT, DO, is a current board-certified anesthesiologist and former physical therapist.