A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Physical therapy: What to expect before your first visit

A man lifts weights in his home.

From the first appointment, a physical therapist works with each patient to tailor their path to rehabilitation.

People may hear the words ‘physical therapy’ and immediately envision a physical therapist leading someone through exercises after a surgery. And while that definitely is part of the process, it’s nowhere close to the entire picture.

Whether it’s treating symptoms related to a sports injury, work accident or knee replacement, physical therapists play an active and engaged role in the patient’s return to the life they want to live.

“A large portion of physical therapy includes coaching, building patient confidence to return to an activity and knowing when it is now safe to do,” said Andrew Oebser, D.P.T., a Marshfield Clinic Health System physical therapist. “The big-picture goal is bringing a patient hope, confidence and giving them the tools to live their best life.”

Customizing your treatment plan

From the first appointment, a physical therapist works with each patient to tailor their path to rehabilitation.
“A typical first visit may entail answering certain questions that help us understand your concerns and problem area,” Oebser explained. “The time spent on these questions can often be more important than the physical examination itself, as it helps narrow the focus, limits any undue testing and avoids further irritating your symptoms.”

Questions that Oebser covers with patients include:

  • What is wrong?

He notes that the focus should be on the root causes of the patient’s symptoms instead of specific anatomical diagnosis.

For example, instead of talking about infraspinatus tendinopathy, therapists like Oebser may say the patient has a strained rotator cuff muscle and the tendon is irritated.

  • How long will recovery take?

“This question can be hard to answer after only one visit,” Oebser said. “But given past experience on similar injuries, therapists can usually provide a timeline of what patients can expect.”

  • What can you do to help your recovery?

“Part of my job is to provide each person with the tools to treat the issue,” Oebser said. “I usually spend time walking through the nuances of exercises that will help the patient take ownership and care for themselves.”

  • What can your physical therapist do?

Besides coaching patients, Oebser mentions that it may require a hands-on treatment or application such as an e-stim unit to help resolve the concern. Other times it may involve rechecking and progressing exercises.

Debunking physical therapy myths

People can experience numerous benefits from physical therapy, including improved strength, endurance, balance and motion. Yet, despite its many positives, many patients remain hesitant to believe physical therapy will work for them.

“Patients may be on the fence in regards to physical therapy for a variety of reasons,” Oebser said. “Some have had failed treatment already from other forms of medical intervention and wonder ‘how can a physical therapist be different than a doctor that did an injection?’ Others may have believe that the treatment will only be exercise and even wind up hurting them.

“In response to them, I’d let them know that physical therapy is not a miracle drug. It usually takes effort on the side of the patient. But if followed, there is substantial research supporting how beneficial physical therapy can be for a variety of issues.”

Oebser adds that physical therapists enter the profession with one mission — to improve the lives of others.

“We work to help each person understand the problem and what they can do about it,” he said. “Even if the answer isn’t immediately apparent, we work hard to identify the problem and find a solution that works for each individual.”

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