10 Tips For Getting the Most Out of Physical Therapy

Exercise_to_shoulder_and_elbow_to_increase_motion_following_fracture_and_dislocation_of_humerous_is_being_given_by_an..._-_NARA_-_522885.tifI’m wrapping up an 8-week layoff from my gym after an injury, and seeing a physical therapist for the very first time. I’m certainly not an expert, but wanted to share a few of the things I’ve learned that I wish I had known before I ever stepped foot into that office. So here’s my quick set of tips for dealing with the physical terrorist (not a typo!) that might help speed up your recovery or at least make things a little easier.

1. You’ve got to describe the type of pain you have.

…so bring on the Pablo Neruda and the vodka! But seriously, I never realized how difficult it was to describe specific sensations. Is it throbbing? Achey? Stabbing? Sharp?  Mild? Severe? What is it on the Likert scale when you use it and when you don’t use it? Thinking of these ahead of time will make it easier to answer questions and free up more time to do all the weird exercises with equipment you don’t have at home or whatnot, instead of saying, “I don’t know, it just hurts, okay?” and getting annoyed. Also, be prepared to give a status report each session. I write things down on what days/activities created pain or immobility to share every week–it’s amazing how quickly I forget when I don’t.

2. Make sure you get the same PT every time…and show up prepared.

It just really helps with consistency, and switching means the new person you’re working with will try all this stuff that didn’t work previously, or try to sleuth out things your original PT already knows. Make sure also that you are on time–even being five or 10 minutes late means you may miss out on some valuable work with an expert (and it’s not like the price is pro-rated.) And wear the right clothing! This was easy for me in an arm injury–short sleeves or a shirt I could roll up–but obviously harder if you have a knee injury in the winter, or whatnot. Just wear something loose and comfortable and that will make your injured area easily accessible. You don’t want to spend 10 minutes trying to loosen your too-tight jeans or whatnot. This is valuable time. Leave your cell phone behind, too.

3. Make sure they’re writing things down!

One PT literally asked me questions non-stop for 45 minutes. It was exhausting. I knew what Jodi Arias meant about her brain getting scrambled, and I wasn’t even on trial for murder. The next session, I came in and got yet another physical therapist (see number 2) and the one who was peppering me with questions I worked so hard to answer had written not a single thing down. I answered all of those questions for nothing!

4. Remind your PT that measurements need to be consistent.

That means that taking a measurement at the beginning of a session and taking one afterwards the next time around (after exercises, stretching, ultrasound, whatever) will give inaccurate results. You want to know how much progress you’re making, which will change up the quantity/quality of treatments and exercises you’re getting, so accuracy and consistency are crucial.

4. Bring a pen and paper, and ideally a camera.

There will be exercises or variations you don’t get a handout for, and sometimes snapping a quick photo is the best way to remember form, as opposed to hastily scrawled notes. You’ll also want to ask a LOT of questions, and writing down the answers is always useful. If you’re given an exercise, you’ll also want to jot down how much pain to expect, the max number of reps you’ll want to get in, what to do if it’s too hard or too easy, etc.

5. Do ALL your exercises.

This goes without saying. And don’t sneak in anything you’re not supposed to do. A lot of people will say they just ignore their PTs and do what they want because physical therapy is too strict, but I’ve found that good PTs are going to stretch you beyond the level you are capable of and really have more experience dealing with injuries than people who want to self-diagnose. Which leads us to…

6. Don’t listen to stupid people.

Okay, they’re not stupid. They just say stupid things. Like explaining to you how they train when they’re injured (and by gosh! that finger still feels so weird…but you should do what they did anyway). Take what is useful, if anything, and ignore the rest. This also goes for people who have interesting rehab ideas that haven’t been vetted by your physical therapist, or just have suggestions that would never work for you.

7. Find an activity that makes you feel the same way you do when you…do whatever it is you’re missing out on.

For me, this was Zombies Run!, which simulated a feeling of purpose (artificial as it was) and tapped into my geeky gaming side to keep me occupied while I took walks in lieu of training. But anything that will keep you focused on how you want to feel instead of how you wish to be doing a specific activity you can’t do is fair game.

8. Find a way to break up your day.

Otherwise you may find yourself working around the clock. And make sure to take breaks, no matter how high your new medical bills are. You’ll need to eventually, anyway.

9. Once you’re ready to get back in, do it s-l-o-w-l-y.

For me that means doing one or two classes a week for a month or so, instead of jumping back in to three to six. And ask your PT for a regimen to continue once you’re no longer attending sessions.

10. Find ways to consistently take care of yourself and prevent further injuries.

Whether that’s massage, prehab, or some combination, figure out a maintenance routine and stick to it. And taking extra special good care of yourself while you’re dealing with the bullshit of it all can help ease the pain.

Good luck!

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  1. jessesToons says:

    This was really interesting, thanks for sharing! I’ve been thinking a lot about physical therapy in Salt Lake City, for some time. I’m excited to see how it’s all going to turn out, thanks again for sharing!

  2. Physiotherapy, as well as physical therapy, can involve a lot of guesswork, from what I’ve observed. For that reason, I appreciate that you included pain description as one of your tips. I’m sure the treatment of an injured arm, for example, can vary widely depending on not only the exact location of the pain but also an accurate depiction of that pain.

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