For people who have never been to a physical therapist (PT), the first visit can be a little intimidating! Here you are, perhaps in pain and weakened by your injury, and someone you have never met will be asking you detailed questions.
A physical therapist (as well as most other health care providers) will ask some probing questions to get a better sense of your problem and how they can go about helping to get you better and back to living the way you’d like. Therapists encourage an open dialogue and your active participation in your own rehabilitation. We don’t want to do all the talking! This post will focus on 7 essential questions to ask your physical therapist at your first appointment, that are applicable to a variety of conditions.
- What’s wrong with me/Why do I hurt?
An important question. Everyone wants to know what the problem is and what can be done about it. The way your therapist responds to this question can help instill confidence in your therapists’ knowledge, and help allay any fears arising from internet searches or an overly technical explanation from their physician perhaps. In addition to asking you about your problem, the PT will perform various tests and measures to make their assessment of your condition, including a plan and goals to get you better.
- How did this happen and how can I fix it?
The first question found out the “what," this question can help with the “why.” Knowing the root cause of a problem can help prevent recurrence, and promote a healthier lifestyle as well. Perhaps you have poor posture at work and it has caused your headaches. Or maybe using poor lifting techniques during a recent move threw out your back. Regardless if you have an acute or chronic injury, understanding how it happened is important to prevent it from ever happening again.
- Do you commonly treat my condition?
This question is helpful in inspiring confidence in the skills of your therapist. PT’s can develop advanced skills in assessing and treating a myriad of problems, so that you should be able to find a PT who has experience treating your specific problem. Ask your therapist about any advanced training they’ve had and what specialty areas they may be interested in.
Physical therapists treat a vast number of conditions, have advanced degrees and typically pursue continuing education courses throughout their career. In addition, many therapists obtain additional certifications such as: Orthopedic Certified Specialist (OCS), Neurologic Certified Specialist (NCS), Sports Certified Specialist (SCS), Certified Hand Therapist (CHT), Geriatric Certified Specialist (GCS), Certified Lymphedema Therapist (CLT), Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), Certified Exercise Expert for Aging Adults (CEEAA), Certified Mechanical Diagnosis and Treatment (Cert. MDT) of the Spine and Certified Orthopedic Manual Therapist (COMT). There are also many others, so be sure to ask.
- What do you expect from me?
There is only so much a physical therapist can do on their own in a clinic. This is a good question to ask because it will signal to the PT that you are an active participant in your own health care, and motivated to get better. Some common responses may be: showing up on time and properly dressed to exercise, notifying the therapist or front desk of any missed sessions in advance, performing your home exercise program as recommended, and applying ice or heat at the recommended frequency.
- How long will it take to get me better?
This isn’t always an easy question to answer for the PT who is just getting a sense of your problem, but they have seen many other patients with similar issues to you, so they can draw on those experiences. The PT should give you an estimated time frame, and a recommended frequency of sessions every week. The idea is to work towards achieving the goals the PT has set for you. It takes time for you to recover from injury, and everyone recovers at a different pace, so be patient with yourself.
- Will you be my therapist? Who exactly will be treating me every time I come in?
Your PT clinic should be able to schedule appointments with the same therapist. Although not always possible due to scheduling conflicts, a consistent PT will lead to better outcomes for you. Seeing a different therapist every time, or being passed on to an aide to do an exercise routine, leads to miscommunication and confusion. If a licensed PT is taking care of you, make sure they do “hands on” techniques with you and progress your program accordingly. You should see the value in coming to your physical therapist right away.
- What will my physical therapy sessions entail?
The first session will include a comprehensive assessment of your problem. The PT will ask about your medical history, the events that led to your problem, what aggravates and eases your symptoms, how your condition impacts your everyday life, and what your goals are for your physical therapy. Then the PT will perform a physical examination including palpation, range of motion, strength testing, balance assessment, neurological screening, and any other tests relevant to your condition. All of these tests help to confirm or rule out other problems. From all these tests and measures, a treatment plan is developed and goals are set. These goals may be different from what you told the PT your goals were, but should be related to how you want to be when the therapy concludes.
After that initial session, you will then start your regular treatment sessions. These will involve the PT asking how you are feeling, and if there are any changes in your condition. Treatments should include instruction in exercises you can do at home, as well as manual therapy, therapeutic exercises, balance training, pain modalities, and any other intervention appropriate for your injury. You should leave each session feeling as though you have worked hard! If your symptoms are worse, please let your PT know. We never want to make you worse, but it is important for us to know what helps you as well as what doesn’t!
I hope the questions above are helpful. Seeing a physical therapist should be a fulfilling, rewarding experience for you. Be prepared to attend all of your sessions, work hard and communicate often with your PT. You will find you will have a trusted health advocate, a champion for your health and well -being, a compassionate listening ear, and a very knowledgeable, skilled health care provider. Good luck!
-- Ben Gilbert, PT, MS, OCS, MBA, Cert. MDT, Director of Outpatient Rehabilitation at Burke