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How to Make the Most of Your Physical Therapy Sessions

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No one wants to land themselves in physical therapy. Maybe you have a workout-related injury, were involved in an accident, or are trying to get to the bottom of some lingering pain you've been having for a while. Whatever the reason for your rehab needs, you probably want to get better as quickly as possible, in as few sessions as possible. (BTW, here are five things physical therapists want runners to start doing now.)

Here's how to ensure you're reaping the maximum benefits from every physical therapy session.

Make sure you understand your diagnosis.
This one may sound simple, but it's one of the keys to PT success because it gives you a big picture view of what to expect in the weeks and months to come. "Physical therapists diagnose movement impairments and dysfunction, so a PT diagnosis may be more specific than your surgical or injury diagnosis or the diagnosis written on your physical therapy prescription," explains Melissa Maglaque, D.P.T., founder of MAG Physical Therapy, Pilates & Wellness.

After a full evaluation, a physical therapist will give you their diagnosis. "That diagnosis then dictates treatment intervention and plan of care, outlining goals for therapy as well as frequency and duration of treatment," Maglaque says. "Understanding your diagnosis is important because it will provide insight as to why particular treatment methods are necessary and why they will be effective." That way, whether you're doing exercises at home or having manual therapy performed by your PT, you'll understand why and how your treatment works. (Did you know that physical therapy can increase fertility and help you get pregnant? Mind. blown.)

Find out who you'll be seeing for regular sessions.
During your first session, it's important to ask who you'll be meeting with when you come in for future appointments, particularly if you're working with a larger PT practice. Simply asking: "Am I going to be seeing you, or will it be a PT assistant or tech?" can help you gauge this. "This is so important because if it's a place where they see multiple patients an hour, you likely won't be seeing your physical therapist much, which may slow your recovery," says Megan Graff, D.P.T., physical therapist and orthopedic clinical specialist at Movement Rx. "If you can, before even going into a visit, this may be a question you can get an answer to over the phone when you're scheduling or trying to decide which place to go to."

Ask the right questions.
If you're headed to PT for an injury, you probably want to avoid getting that injury ever again, and much of your ability to do that depends on your therapist and how willing they are to put in that preventative work with you. By asking something like: "What will you teach me that will keep this from being a problem again in the future?" you can figure out if your therapist is willing to help you work on injury prevention. "Your PT should not only be interested in helping get you back to full function, but also in teaching you about 'why' behind treatments, your movement, recovery, and how your overall lifestyle plays into it all," Graff says. "This question is a way to tease out if they're just interested in putting out the fire, or teaching you what started the fire and how to prevent future fires."

Write in a journal.
Motivation can be tough to maintain during a long recovery process, so it's helpful to look back on how far you've come. "Keep your own notes on pain levels and how you are feeling from day to day (happy, sad, motivated, discouraged)," suggests Ryan Waldman, D.P.T., Patch physical therapist and clinical advisor. Even if you just jot them down on your phone in a note, it's helpful to have a record of how you're doing over the days, months, and weeks. "Recovery is slow, so having notes of how your feeling over time lets you see progress," Waldman says. "Seeing tangible results also helps keep patients motivated to continue with the recovery process." (Need another reason to try it? Research shows that journaling may help you fall asleep faster.)

Challenge the notion that more is always better.
Most people think that the more often they see their PT for a session, the better. But this isn't always the case. "Oftentimes, physical therapy referrals read two to three times per week," Maglaque says. "However, when you seek hands-on, one-on-one treatment with a physical therapist for 45 to 60 minute sessions, weekly or biweekly sessions may be more appropriate, depending on your condition." Not only will these types of sessions help you get better faster, but they'll be more cost-effective, she says. "Given that you are invested in your health and healing and therefore compliant with your program, fewer sessions could actually be better than more! For those who aren't dedicated to following their program, greater frequency or duration of sessions may be necessary."

Think of your PT sessions as education, not exercise.
Even if your PT's office is set up like a gym, it's important to remember that you're not there to work out; you're there to learn how to heal your injury and prevent it from happening again. "To get the most out of your PT session, think of your session not as an exercise session, but as an educational session," advises Christie Downing, D.P.T., a physical therapist at AMITA Health Alexian Brothers Rehabilitation Hospital. "An effective therapist must be an effective educator. If you walk away from your therapy session without a clear understanding of what you, as a patient, need to do outside the clinic to ensure recovery, then your session will be futile."

That's why learning as much as you can from your PT is essential. And PTs, in general, are particularly well-suited to fielding questions from patients. "Take the opportunity to ask questions, because we often have much more time to answer basic questions than most health-care providers," Downing says. "A therapist may not be able to answer all your health-care questions, but can often help you seek out the appropriate answer by contacting the appropriate channels."

Ask your therapist for feedback.
"Physical therapists keep track of metrics like range of motion that tell the story of progress, but many times patients don't know to ask about it," says Amanda McPeek, D.P.T., Patch physical therapist. "Check in with your physical therapist every few weeks or once per month to understand how you are improving quantitatively."

Be honest with your PT.
Didn't have time to do your exercises? Feeling worse than when you started PT? Tell your therapist! "I don't get mad if a patient tells me they weren't able to do their exercises," says Jasmine Marcus, D.P.T., a physical therapist. "Instead, I appreciate their honesty. Sometimes this will alert me to other stressors in a patient's life or allow me to suggest changes." Physical therapists are trained to make recovery possible, but if they don't have all the information, it can be tough for them to make appropriate recommendations. "Maybe someone can't find the time to exercise each day, but they can do one exercise while they wait in line for coffee and another while taking a break at work," Marcus says. "The more I know, the more I can be a resource for you."

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