Physical Therapy

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Physical Therapy Basics

Doctors often recommend physical therapy (PT) for kids and teens who have been injured or who have movement problems from an illness, disease, or disability.

After an injury, physical therapists work to decrease pain and help kids return to daily activities. They teach kids exercises designed to help them regain strength and range of motion, and also show kids and families how to prevent future injuries.

Physical therapy might be needed any time a problem with movement limits someone's daily activities. So doctors often recommend PT for kids with:

  • sports injuries
  • developmental delays
  • cerebral palsy
  • genetic disorders
  • orthopedic disabilities/injuries
  • heart and lung conditions
  • birth defects (such as spina bifida)
  • effects of in-utero drug or alcohol exposure
  • acute trauma
  • head injury
  • limb deficiencies
  • muscle diseases

What Physical Therapists Do

Physical therapists use a variety of treatments to help build strength, improve movement, and strengthen skills needed to complete daily activities.

Physical therapists might guide kids through:

  • developmental activities, such as crawling and walking
  • balance and coordination activities
  • adaptive play
  • aquatic (water) therapy
  • improving circulation around injuries by using heat, cold, exercise, electrical stimulation, massage, and ultrasound
  • training to build strength around an injury
  • flexibility exercises to increase range of motion
  • instruction on how to avoid injuries
  • safety and prevention programs

During a visit, a physical therapist may:

  • measure a child's flexibility and strength
  • analyze how a child walks and runs (the child's gait)
  • identify existing and potential problems
  • consult with other medical, psychiatric, and school personnel about an individual education plan (IEP)
  • provide instructions for home exercise programs
  • recommend when returning to sports is safe

What to Look for in a Physical Therapist

Entry-level physical therapists must receive a doctoral degree in physical therapy (a DPT) from an accredited college program. Physical therapists also must pass a state-administered national exam.

States also may impose their own regulations for practicing PT. You can find out more information about any other requirements for local physical therapists by contacting your state's licensure board.

Finding a Physical Therapist

Physical therapists typically work in hospitals, private practices, fitness centers, and rehabilitation and research facilities. Ask your doctor for recommendations or contact your state's physical therapy association for names of local licensed physical therapists. Coaches or phys-ed teachers at your child's school also might be able to recommend a physical therapist.

Reviewed by: Carolyn T. Giles, PTA
Date reviewed: June 2014



Related Resources

OrganizationEaster Seals Easter Seals is a nonprofit, community-based health and human services provider dedicated to helping children and adults with disabilities and special needs gain greater independence.
OrganizationAmerican Physical Therapy Association This organization provides information on physical therapy, from therapists in each state to current research.


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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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