The Different Types of Physical Therapy

Physical Therapy, or PT, is an integral part of your healthcare. Some people need short-term physical therapy to reduce symptoms of a health condition like pain and stiffness, while others work with a PT for months or longer to manage their symptoms and prevent them from worsening.

Physical Therapy

PT professionals are known as physical therapists (PTs). They have either a bachelor’s or doctorate-level degree. Visit to learn more.

Physical therapy is a profession that focuses on improving movement and motion to decrease pain, limit disability and manage medical conditions. The physiotherapy field is broad and encompasses multiple body systems including musculoskeletal, neurological, cardiovascular, and respiratory.

A PT is unique among health care professionals in that it often works one-on-one with clients for extended periods of time, allowing a strong client-therapist connection to develop. This relationship, combined with a client’s trust in their therapist, can improve the effectiveness of treatment and rehabilitation.

Besides hands-on manipulation, other techniques used to decrease pain and promote healing include:

Ultrasound, which transmits high or low-frequency sound waves into muscles and surrounding tissue to alleviate pain and stimulate muscle contraction.

Electrical stimulation, or e-stim, uses small battery-operated machines to deliver an electrical impulse to a specific area of the body to stimulate muscle contraction and decrease pain.

Kinesiology Taping, also known as K-Tape, is a special cloth tape that is applied to the skin to help decrease pain, improve circulation and facilitate muscle function.

Men and women across the lifespan may need physiotherapy to treat injuries or diseases that affect the musculoskeletal system, such as pelvic pain or osteoporosis. New areas of practice are continually developing, such as a growing emphasis on women’s health, which includes issues such as incontinence, prenatal and postpartum musculoskeletal pain, and lymphedema (accumulation of fluids in soft tissues). A specialized focus on cardiovascular and respiratory conditions is also emerging.


Massage is the general term for pressing, rubbing and manipulating your skin, muscles, tendons and ligaments. It may range from light stroking to deep pressure. It is a common element of integrative medicine and is often offered alongside standard treatment for many medical illnesses and situations.

Lessens Pain and Tension

Massage increases the blood flow to your muscles, thereby increasing the amount of oxygen and nutrients that reach your cells and tissues. This decreases muscle tension and stiffness, and relieves stress. Massage also helps boost the immune system by stimulating lymphatic fluid, which maintains bodily fluids and removes waste products and toxins from your body.

Generally, massage is safe for healthy people of all ages, but you should let your therapist know if you have a health condition that might limit the effectiveness or safety of a particular type of massage. For example, trigger point massage uses firm finger pressure on areas of your body that are painful or tense. If you have a condition such as heart disease or high blood pressure, you should avoid this type of massage.

Licensed massage therapists can be found through websites that provide directories of certified practitioners. Always choose a therapist who has completed the appropriate training and has been cleared by your doctor to perform this procedure. Make sure you ask your therapist to take off any restrictive clothing and to give you privacy while performing the massage.


Normally, muscles in your body are stimulated by electrical signals from the brain via nerves to create tension and movement. When these nerves are damaged, the messages that tell your muscles to contract can get interrupted or don’t reach the muscle at all. This leads to a decrease in muscle mass and pain.

Electrotherapy uses small currents of electricity to help repair soft body tissues, alleviate pain and improve movement. The physiotherapist uses a device like an electrode pen or pads that attach to your skin to send the electrical signal to the area in need of attention. You’ll feel a light tingling sensation during this treatment.

One of the most common forms of electrotherapy is transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation or TENS. Using a battery-operated machine, your physiotherapist places electrodes across the affected area to deliver an electrical impulse that blocks the transmission of pain signals in the nervous system, thus decreasing your discomfort.

TENS devices are also useful for decreasing inflammation and facilitating wound healing. Other types of electrotherapy include kinesiology tape (also called K-tape) to decrease tightness in the skin and muscles, electric muscle stimulation or EMS, and phonophoresis which involves the introduction of medication through your skin and tissues with ultrasound. Using a variety of electrotherapy treatments can promote healthy circulation that brings oxygen and nutrients to your cells, boosts your body’s ability to heal, and removes toxins to keep you feeling healthy.


Iontophoresis is a technique that uses an electrical current to promote the transdermal penetration of medication or drugs. It can be used for a variety of conditions and is especially effective in the treatment of hyperhidrosis (excessive sweating).

Iontophoresis involves placing a hand or foot into water while an electric current passes through the skin. The electric current causes the sodium ions to repel one another, which effectively plugs up the sweat glands of the affected area. The method can also be used to deliver corticosteroid or anti-inflammatory medications for a number of conditions including tendonitis and bursitis.

Your physical therapist will place an electrode on your skin that looks like a large rubbery sticker connected to wires. They will then attach the electrode with your medication to an electrical stimulation unit and turn it on. You will feel a light tingling sensation during the treatment but it should not be painful. You will need to remove any jewelry or body piercings prior to iontophoresis as the electric current may pass through them. You should also avoid heat and ice treatments immediately afterward as they alter circulation to the area which could wash away the medication.

Studies indicate that iontophoresis is an effective treatment for hyperhidrosis and should be initiated as soon as the problem is diagnosed. In most cases, patients require a minimum of three sessions per week until their sweating normalizes. If you are interested in iontophoresis for excessive sweating, speak with your physical therapist and ask whether it is a treatment option for you. If not, he or she can suggest alternatives to treat your symptoms.


Hydrotherapy, also known as aquatic therapy or pool therapy, uses water for healing. It’s used for pain relief, swelling reduction, increased mobility and more. It can be done in a pool, bath, hot tub, sauna, whirlpool or in special tanks designed for rehabilitation.

It’s often recommended as an alternative to weight-bearing exercises for patients with certain conditions, such as osteoarthritis. This is because it reduces joint compression and can help clients feel more comfortable during exercise. In addition, according to a study published in the Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, hydrotherapy can improve the quality of life of individuals with developmental disabilities or aging-related challenges.

Water temperature, buoyancy and viscosity are some of the most important factors in the effectiveness of hydrotherapy. Warm water relaxes muscles and increases flexibility, while the natural floatation of the body in the water helps ease pressure on the joints. The combination of these factors makes hydrotherapy ideal for reducing pain and increasing muscle strength.

The physical and psychological benefits of physiotherapy are well documented. Often, the emotional aspect of injuries and illnesses can be just as important to the recovery process as physical treatment is. That’s why the best therapists know how to connect with their patients and support them through their anxieties. By creating a positive relationship, they can inspire their patients to push through their limitations and achieve their goals.


Traction is a force that’s used by physical therapists to realign bones and joints. It uses weights or other devices to slowly pull a bone or joint, like a dislocated shoulder, back into place. There are two main types of traction: skin and skeletal.

While some research suggests that traction may not be effective in the treatment of low back pain, other studies have shown that it can improve a patient’s symptoms. It can also help prevent future flare-ups of pain. Your physical therapist will use your history of pain and symptoms, your current movement abilities, and other factors to create a care plan that includes traction.

There are different kinds of traction, depending on your specific needs. Manual traction involves the physical therapist’s hands, while mechanical traction involves a machine that uses weights and pulleys to apply the force. Continuous traction (also known as bed traction) is not recommended, because it uses very low weights for extended periods of time—up to 1 hour.

Cervical traction is often used to reduce pressure on the neck, which can help ease pain in the area. Gravity lumbar traction is also used, and it involves a chest harness that’s attached to the treatment table to allow the body’s weight to provide traction on the lower back. Your physical therapist will explain how each type of traction works and determine if it’s an appropriate option for you.