Physical therapists are the rehab pros. They’re the ones who help you make the transition from the doctor’s office to the playing field, ensuring that your injury heals as quickly as possible.
Traditionally, you’d only see a physical therapist after a doctor diagnoses an injury and prescribes a physical therapy program. However, visiting a doctor isn’t always a prerequisite for going to your local PT
According to Dr. Matt Stevens, physical therapist and owner of Pure Physio (Strongsville, Ohio), it’s possible in most states to go directly to a physical therapist without ever seeing a doctor. A physical therapist can assess your injury and determine if they can treat it or if a doctor’s expertise is required.
Here are the situations when it’s appropriate to consider going directly to a physical therapist:
Reason 1: To get an assessment
Rather than reacting to an injury, you can take a proactive approach and see a PT to get ahead of potential injuries.
A physical therapist has the ability to assess your strengths, weaknesses, and mobility and flexibility limitations. They can use this data to identify injury risks and recommend a plan to correct any issues.
Many physical therapists will use what’s called a Functional Movement Screen, which is a system of tests, designed by physical therapist Gray Cook, to assess movement and identify injury risks and general movement quality issues. You can learn more about the FMS here.
Some PTs may use a different set of assessments, but regardless, make sure to choose a PT who has extensive experience working with athletes. These individuals will be able to better assess your body and identify your individual needs.
Reason 2: To treat an acute injury
An acute injury is caused by a sudden traumatic event, and often results in immediate pain or other injury symptoms. Examples of acute injuries are fractures, lacerations or sprained ligaments.
For many acute injuries, you will need to see a doctor. If you suspect a broken bone, a major joint injury or think you need stitches, then only a doctor can treat these injuries.
However, a minor joint sprain or a pulled muscle are completely within the scope of practice of a physical therapist. The PT will do an assessment to diagnose the injury and provide a rehab protocol to get you back in action as quickly as possible. Depending on the severity of the injury, you may need several PT visits or there’s a chance you can do the majority of your rehab at home or in a gym.
“A lot of times I’ll have my folks come in and we’ll do a quick assessment to see what kind of injury [it is] and get them set up on some sort of rehab program, whether that’s modifying their training or giving them alternative training to help mitigate or reduce the amount of acute injury and prevent that from coming back,” explains Stevens.
Reason 3: To treat chronic pain
Chronic pain is an injury that just won’t go away. Maybe you have glute and leg pain from sciatica, or your shoulder flares up every time you bench press. You can usually get through your day-to-day with the pain, but there’s definitely a problem.
A physical therapist has two goals in this scenario. First, they will help alleviate the pain. Second, they will do an assessment to find out why the pain happened in the first place. For example, the root cause of sciatica may be poor movement technique that places stress on the sciatic nerve. Or maybe you experience knee pain, but the real cause is a problem with your ankles.
This strategy provides a long-term solution for injury management and a rehab program that actually works.