Physical therapy seeks to identify a person’s movement related weaknesses and biomechanical imbalances and rehabilitate them to improve function. Most of the time, patients will be referred to a physical therapist after an acute injury (such as an ankle sprain) or to treat a chronic condition (such as osteoarthritis). A physical therapist will evaluate the patient and initiate a treatment plan that addresses the specific dysfunction.

The length of time spent in physical therapy depends on the injury. As a general rule, patients can return to normal physical activity once they can safely and correctly perform the desired activity’s requirements with their normal strength and range of motion.

Once a certain body part suffers an injury, the risk of re-injury increases. After finishing treatment, patients can decrease this risk by diligently continuing their personalized home exercise program to maintain their functional strength and mobility. An at-home plan typically focuses on:

  • Balance

  • Strength and muscle tone

  • Flexibility

  • Joint mobility

Preventive physical therapy can also help healthy people of all ages avoid injury in the first place. It can be used in the pediatric population to avoid common overuse injuries, and in the adult population to maintain and improve mobility to avoid dysfunction from chronic conditions such as osteoarthritis. Seeing a physical therapist before starting a new sport or before getting back into working out after a long break can be beneficial.

For athletes, proper warm-ups and cool-downs in their conditioning routines are essential to reducing the risk of injury and re-injury. Many athletes also use injury prevention programs that can help people without prior ailments maintain their body’s peak performance and protect against common injuries such as ankle sprains or ACL tears (especially for female athletes). While many of these programs are short in duration (15 to 20 minutes) and can be available for free online, they still require proper supervision to be done correctly.

Patients practicing home exercises should speak to their physician about returning to physical therapy if they notice a new weakness or instability, or worsening of symptoms. A healthy diet and regular exercise are also universal lifestyle habits that can limit the possibility of re-injury. People interested in preventive physical therapy or injury prevention programs should speak to their primary-care physician or sports medicine specialist for a referral.

Charlene Jones is a pediatric-trained sports medicine physician who specializes in musculoskeletal injuries at Mercy Catholic Medical Center.