When should I see a physical therapist?
Many of the patients I treat are extremely active, though few make their living playing sports professionally. They are passionate about their lifestyle and sport of choice, and take their health very seriously. With many sports and hobbies, aches and pains are likely to occur. Athletes quickly get used to sore muscles and minor injuries, often considering these a normal part of an active lifestyle.
But should these be treated more seriously?
Many of the patients with whom I work initially ignored what seemed to them to be minor injuries, yet have since become more frequent or more intense.
At what point should you visit a physical therapist?
Read more for quick tips to decide if what you’re feeling needs a closer look.
1. Immediately after a specific injury.
A number of recent studies have shown support for early physical therapy for lower back pain. The studies show that physical therapy within 2-4 weeks of a lower back injury leads to a decreased risk of surgery and injections, fewer doctor visits, faster recovery, and fewer incidents of chronic pain.
Clinically, I have seen even earlier physical therapy provide excellent results. I am a strong advocate of patients developing a relationship with a physical therapist as a practitioner on their medical team (see post). I also believe that patients should have email access to their physical therapists in order to communicate updates and ask general questions. Often, a patient will email or call our office within the first few days of an injury and we will schedule them that day. Earlier this year, I worked with a triathlete who developed intense back pain after a weekend race. We saw her the next day and within a week she reported an 80% decrease in her symptoms. The following week she reported a 95% improvement and was able to race again exactly one month later. The sooner we can see a patient post-injury, the faster their recovery from the painful, acute stage. This allows us to move to more advanced stages of physical therapy earlier, in order to address the root cause of their injury.
2. If an old injury has reappeared or never disappeared!
As I was getting ready to graduate one of my runners from physical therapy the other day, she asked, “but…how will I know if I need to come back?” It was a great question, yet one without a definitive answer. Runners, especially, are subject to occasional minor aches and pains. At what point should they take these more seriously and seek help?
In general, you should reconnect with your physical therapist when:
You feel pain during an activity that gets worse as you continue the activity. This is a sign that something is not right.
Your pain changes the way you perform the activity. If you are running down the street with foot pain and you have to limp so it doesn’t hurt as much, go home and call your PT. Remember, the faster the painful symptoms are addressed, the more likely the root cause will be identified and other related injuries are less likely to occur.
You feel pain during three consecutive workouts or activities. Often pain will be present at the start of an activity, but will disappear within a few minutes. Does that mean it should be ignored? No. If you are consistently feeling the same or similar symptoms, even if they go away during the activity, schedule an appointment. Pain is a sign of tissue fatigue or too much stress on a particular part of the body, likely related to an underlying movement dysfunction. In English? You’re likely not moving as well as you could, an area of your body is doing more than its fair share of the work, and it needs some help.
3. For an annual check up.
Physical therapists can be, and should be, the medical practitioners of choice for a musculoskeletal wellness/fitness screen, an assessment with a physical therapist to identify risk factors for developing a particular injury. Much like we visit the dentist on a regular basis, we believe that everyone should schedule an annual preventative visit to their physical therapist to identify and address areas of dysfunction (that tight neck you’ve been complaining about, poor posture, or the shoulder that occasionally hurts in your bootcamp class). Left undetected, these will likely get worse over time. We would much rather see you once a year to revise your exercise program and keep you healthy, than have you wind up in our office as our newest patient!
Remember, you shouldn’t try to tough it out or wait until an injury becomes more severe before visiting your physical therapist. You will wind up suffering needlessly and make our jobs even harder!
If you’re still not sure you should come in for an assessment, feel free to email us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
In your email, please provide the following:
-where is the location of pain?
-how did the injury occur?
-how long have you had the pain?
-what makes it hurt?
-what makes it feel better?
We will review the information and advise you on the best option for your injury. This may include advice for self-management, the need to schedule a physical therapy assessment, or a physician contact, if necessary.