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7 Surprising Benefits of Physical Therapy

Mar 21, 2024
6 min Read
Dr. Julie Peterson, PT, DPT

Throughout my 20+ years of practice as a physical therapist, I’ve encountered plenty of misconceptions about the field. One of the most common is the idea that you don’t need physical therapy (PT) until after you’ve been injured or had surgery. While physical therapists do excel in the realm of recovery and rehabilitation, the preventative benefits we can provide are equally valuable.

7 benefits of physical therapy you may not know about

Physical therapy isn’t just reactionary — it plays a crucial role in preventing injury, promoting wellness and empowering people to lead active and full lives. Let’s explore seven of the many benefits of physical therapy you might not know about.

1. Better posture

The idea of “proper posture” is often taught in a cultural context. For some, it’s considered a practice of good manners to sit up straight, have both feet on the floor and not touch the table with elbows while eating.

But it’s critical to understand that good posture is actually defined by your own unique body mechanics and how you interact with your environment.

For example, no matter your shape or size, it is factually understood that lungs don’t inflate as well when you’re in a prolonged slumped or hunched position. This can negatively affect lung capacity and diaphragmatic movement, restricting oxygen intake over time.

Physical therapists help address challenges related to posture by focusing on a patient’s muscle imbalances, strengthening their stabilizer muscles, improving their flexibility and, ultimately, promoting proper alignment through regular practice and exercise. It doesn’t happen overnight, but good postural habits carry undeniable long-term benefits.

2. Improved balance and injury prevention

As we get older, our reaction times inevitably slow down. This is a natural part of the aging process — but it’s also important to note that this can increase the risk of falls, fractures, breaks and other injuries.

PT helps patients of all ages maintain their balance, posture and confidence on stairs and uneven surfaces. This can be especially important for aging adults. Physical therapists are trained to assess an individual’s fall risk and address underlying conditions that may be exacerbating the problem. We create individualized care plans to help patients with strength, flexibility, balance or coordination — or all of the above. When needed, we match patients with assistive devices like canes or walkers, and we educate the patients on their effective use.

Physical therapists may also perform home safety assessments and recommend appropriate modifications. These can include things like the removal of tripping hazards, installing grab bars and handrails, and improving lighting to reduce fall risk.

3. Enhanced athletic performance

As movement experts, it makes sense that physical therapists are well equipped to help athletes reach peak levels of fitness. We have a trained eye that can pick up on slight discrepancies and deficiencies in range of motion, flexibility, strength and stability that other trainers might overlook.

For professional and elite athletes, even the smallest adjustments to movements or exercises can be hugely impactful in terms of performance and injury prevention from misuse or overuse. Trained physical therapists understand that athletic performance doesn’t just depend on the strengthening of muscles — even seemingly miniscule adjustments can be the difference between optimal performance and potential injury.

With middle school and high school athletics becoming increasingly more competitive, the potential for injuries is also on the rise. Physical therapists not only rehab sports related injuries on and off the field but can help student athletes in performing at the highest level of competition while protecting their musculoskeletal system as they grow and develop.

4. Strengthened pelvic floor

While those who have carried a baby and given birth might already know the importance of a strong pelvic floor, many are not familiar with this essential muscle group. People often don’t realize how critical the pelvic floor is for bowel, bladder and sexual health. In fact, while it is most often discussed in a postpartum context, pelvic function is crucial for men, women and children.

Some patients experiencing things like bedwetting, urinary or fecal incontinence, pelvic organ prolapse or pain during intimacy feel too embarrassed to bring it up with their doctor. But, as a specialist in women’s health and a pelvic floor expert, I can assure you that we’ve seen it all before. No matter your anatomy or what issue you’re having, PT practitioners are there to help without judgment.

5. Chronic pain management

Generally speaking, pain is the number one reason that people seek out medical care in this country. Chronic pain is considered pain that occurs most days — or every day — for three months or more. It is estimated that an astonishing 50 million Americans live with chronic pain.

Even so, there are significant gaps in scientific knowledge about pain, often due to the complex and subjective nature of the topic. It's not uncommon for people to develop patterns of “fight or flight” responses to certain kinds of stimuli, enabling neural pathways to facilitate chronic pain symptoms.

Physical therapists, however, are trained in pain education and management strategies. It’s my job to get people moving in a safe and sustainable way. In the PT world, we use our clinical experience to help patients navigate different kinds of pain, recognize when it’s okay to push past discomfort and identify when it’s time to stop or slow down.

6. Reduced stress and improved mental health

Living with pain, injuries and chronic conditions is stressful and can have a negative impact on a patient’s mental health. It’s natural for people to experience frustration after trying and failing to fix things on their own — and this can often lead to a sense of “decision fatigue” or even hopelessness regarding their conditions. The physiological benefits of PT come with their own mental health rewards — it is widely understood that physical activity increases serotonin, which has a direct and positive impact on mood, mental health and stress levels. And while they may initially visit a physical therapist seeking out positive physical outcomes, many PT patients benefit from simply having a program to follow and a trained professional to speak with about their experiences.

By helping to improve patients’ overall quality of life, PT enables them to accomplish the goals, tasks and activities that bring them joy and happiness.

7. Empowerment

The final advantage — one that often goes unmentioned — is the sense of empowerment a patient can experience through effective PT treatment. In this realm of therapeutic care, patients are active participants in their own recovery and health.

One of the best parts of my job is celebrating my patients’ progress and watching their confidence grow as they regain their physical functionality. Through physical therapy, patients gain tools and strategies that help them take charge of their lives and become better equipped to overcome any obstacles or struggles that come their way.

Make an impact as a physical therapist

It’s clear the rewards of effective PT treatment are abundant. From improving physical processes to strengthening mental wellness, patients can learn to take life’s challenges with confidence.

If you found these seven benefits of physical therapy interesting and want to learn more about how you might be able to change people’s lives through your work in this rewarding profession, check out our article “How to Become a Physical Therapist."

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