A surgeon might be able to reattach a limb or repair a broken bone, but it often takes physical therapy to restore a patient's function. Physical therapy, broadly speaking, involves direct manipulation of muscles, joints and other parts of the body affected by an injury or chronic illness. Strength training, heat treatments, massage and supervised exercises may all be elements of physical therapy. Individual physical therapy regimens often depend on the type of injury or condition, the patient's age and specialized treatments prescribed by a physician.
Sometimes physical therapy is used to address the injury itself and other times it is used to help the patient compensate for the loss of use. Physical therapists may use strength training, for example, to make life on a walker or in a wheelchair more bearable. Other forms of physical therapy may actually improve range of motion or realignment of the affected area. Patients may have to learn how to use their non-dominant hand or develop a new walking style to accommodate a prosthesis.
Physical therapy may also involve the use of braces, walkers or other mobility aids. Patients may be encouraged to exercise the injured areas while wearing supportive devices. Water therapy may also be used to reduce the amount of weight placed on an injured limb. Physical therapy can also duplicate the conditions patients may face at work or home during a typical day.
The field of physical therapy, much like other medical-related occupations, continues to grow in demand. Professional physical therapists attend at least four years in college-level training, with a heavy emphasis on human physiology and biology. Most candidates also spend years working directly with experienced physical therapists before seeking their own licenses to practice. There are numerous occupations available for a physical therapy major, including nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, professional sports teams and hospitals. Many physical therapists continue their training and become supervisors or private practitioners for home health care needs.