How to Prepare for a Physical Therapy Evaluation

What to Expect on Your First Appointment

Photo of a woman working with a physical therapist.

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If you develop an illness or suffer an injury that causes pain or difficulty with functional mobility, you may benefit from the skilled services of a physical therapist. Your physical therapist can assess your specific situation and provide focused treatments and exercises to help you return to your previous level of function.

Your first session with your physical therapist is called an initial evaluation. During this session, 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 then take specific measurements of the impairments that may be causing your problem and put together a treatment plan for you.

Finding a Physical Therapist

Your doctor will often be the person who will refer you to a physical therapist (PT) when ongoing hands-on therapy is needed. If you feel you need a physical therapist for whatever, simply ask your doctor for a referral. Friends and families are also good for references. You can also contact the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) or use their online directory.

Many states in the United States allow you to visit a PT via direct access. This means that you can access the services of a PT without a doctor's referral. If you are unsure about the laws in your state, call the PT directly and ask.

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.

Booking Your Evaluation

When you first contact a physical therapist to set up an evaluation, don't be afraid to ask if they've treated your condition before. There is no point in pursuing a relationship with someone who may not be fully appraised of what you need. This includes a complete understanding of the drugs you are taking, some of which may cause cold sensitivity, heat sensitivity, or photosensitivity.

Don't be shy about asking about costs. Be sure to confirm that the PT accepts your insurance. If you don't have insurance, ask for an email copy of the list of services with the current price structure

Preparations

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 are less likely to forget or miss important facts. Try to answer the following:

  • When and how did your problem begin?
  • What was your functional mobility status prior to your injury?
  • How often do the symptoms recur?
  • How is that problem changing?
  • What makes things better or worse?

Your PT will likely ask you some questions about your injury or illness. Be sure to bring a list of your medications and any surgeries or procedure you have had in the past.

What to Wear

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.

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. Before your appointment, ask the PT what you should wear and if there is room to change in.

Initial 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 clear instructions about what to expect and what to do. Once the exam is complete, you can get started on your PT 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 after your initial evaluation. He or she 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 a list of exercises to do at home and provide you a detailed print-out to help keep you on track.​

Your PT will also make recommendations about how frequently to return for treatments. Man rehab programs consist of twice or thrice weekly visits. Sometimes, sessions are done once a week. Your specific program will depend on variable factors including your pain level or current level of mobility.

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 doctor, PT, and other specialists (such as a dietitian, occupational therapist, or psychotherapist when needed). The irregular or occasional use of PT tends to be less successful.

A Word From Verywell

The relationship you have with your physical therapist should feel like a therapeutic alliance; both of you should be working towards the goal of helping you move better and feel better. 

If you have questions about what is happening during physical therapy just ask. Your physical therapist should encourage questions and should be able to provide clear, concise answers about your treatments, condition, and rehab program. 

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Article Sources

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  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