What to Expect at Physical Therapy

Preparing for your first session

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While what ongoing treatment entails will differ from person to person, there are some basics that apply to everyone when it comes to what to expect at physical therapy (PT) if you're just getting started.

For example, during your initial evaluation, your physical therapist will spend time with you to learn about your condition, your previous level of function, and how your condition is affecting your life. They will also take specific measurements of the impairments that may be causing your problem.

This article discusses what you can expect during your first PT appointment and how you can best prepare for it, including what information to have ready in advance and what to wear the day of.

Physical therapist working with a patient
Caiaimage / Trevor Adeline /  Getty Images

Information to Have Ready For Your PT

When preparing for your initial physical therapy appointment, be sure to write down the important facts about the history of your problem. By writing things down, you will be less likely to forget or miss important facts that are worth communicating.

Try to answer the following, which will likely be asked during your session:

  • When and how did your problem begin?
  • How well were you able to carry out daily activities like stair climbing or lifting groceries prior to your injury?
  • How often do the symptoms recur?
  • How is that problem changing?
  • What makes things better or worse?

Be sure to bring a list of your medications, some of which may cause cold sensitivity, heat sensitivity, or photosensitivity, which means they may impact your therapy.

You will also need to tell your PT about any chronic health conditions, surgeries, or procedures you have had.

Do I Need to Bring a PT Referral?

Most people are referred to a physical therapist by a healthcare provider. But all U.S. states have a form of direct access, meaning a formal referral is not necessary in certain or sometimes all cases. Visit the American Physical Therapy Association's website to learn about direct access in your state and to find a physical therapist near you.

What to Wear to Physical Therapy

Be prepared to move around a lot during your first physical therapy session. With that in mind, choose clothing that is easy to move around in. Many opt for workout clothes.

If you have shoulder pain, wear a shirt that allows access to your shoulder and arm. Shorts should be worn if you have hip pain, knee pain, or ankle pain.

Not all physical therapy clinics have changing rooms. Ask the office about this before your appointment so you can plan accordingly.

Initial Physical Therapy Examination

After your physical therapist talks to you about your condition, they will then perform an examination. Your PT will focus on measuring impairments that may be causing your problem or that may be affected by your injury.

Common measurements taken during a physical therapy examination include:

During the examination, your physical therapist should give you a sense of what may be helping or hurting your situation. Once the exam is complete, they will discuss a treatment plan.

Studies suggest that people who directly access physical therapy tend to achieve better results, in part because they are more invested in their care and more likely to adhere to the treatment plan.

Setting Up a Treatment Plan

After your examination, your PT will have a pretty clear idea of a treatment plan to start working on decreasing your pain and improving your mobility. Your physical therapist should discuss with you the goals of treatment and the expected course of your rehab.

Your physical therapist may start treatment immediately after your initial evaluation or at your next appointment. They may use therapeutic modalities like ultrasound or electrical stimulation to help manage your pain and improve your muscle function.

Exercise is one of the staples of any rehab program. After your initial evaluation, your physical therapist should prescribe specific exercises to do on your own and provide you a detailed print-out on how to do them that you can reference at home.

Your PT will also make recommendations about how frequently to return for treatments. This will depend on factors including your pain level and current level of mobility.

Many rehab programs require you to come in two or three times a week, but some may only require a weekly visit. Irregular or occasional use of PT will not have the same effect as sticking with a prescribed plan.

When embarking on a treatment plan, ask the PT what improvements you can expect to achieve over a certain period of time. Be optimistic but have realistic goals.

Research suggests that the best results are achieved with a multidisciplinary team consisting of a healthcare provider, PT, and other specialists (such as a dietitian, occupational therapist, or psychotherapist, when needed).


Your first physical therapy appointment will include an initial examination, which will help your PT understand what impairments you might have. This will help them develop the right treatment plan for your specific condition.

Make sure you tell your PT about any medication you're taking and what you hope to achieve during physical therapy. You may want to also consult other specialists to make sure all aspects of your condition are considered during your recovery.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Piano L, Maselli F, Viceconti A, Gianola S, Ciuro A. Direct access to physical therapy for the patient with musculoskeletal disorders, a literature review. J Phys Ther Sci. 2017;29(8):1463-71. doi:10.1589/jpts.29.1463

  2. Van Middelkoop M, Rubinstein SM, Kuijpers T, et al. A systematic review on the effectiveness of physical and rehabilitation interventions for chronic non-specific low back pain. Eur Spine J. 2011;20(1):19-39. doi:10.1007/s00586-010-1518-3

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