You could go years of your life without ever being referred to a physical therapist, so when your first appointment approaches, you might feel nervous or intimidated. What actually happens in physical therapy? What should you wear?
“The goal of the first visit is to collect the information necessary to determine an accurate diagnosis, which will then allow the therapist to establish a prognosis and plan of care that guides the treatment in the following sessions,” says Daniel Berdan, PT, DPT, physical therapist at Big Stone Therapies, Inc, in Ortonville, MN.
To find that diagnosis, you and your physical therapist will spend the first session evaluating your symptoms in various ways. Here are three things to expect at the first appointment to make your session less intimidating.
1. Wear comfy athletic clothes and supportive sneakers.
You want something that you can move in freely. If your workout wardrobe is lacking, don’t stress too much (and don’t go shopping just for your physical therapy appointment). T-shirts, sweatpants, yoga pants, basketball shorts, or comfy pants can all work just fine.
That said, shorts and short sleeves (or tanks) are ideal. This can help your physical therapist view specific joints or muscles while you move, which may be able to help make a diagnosis.
Still not sure what to wear? “Many clinics do have gowns or extra pairs of gym shorts that will work just as well,” says Berdan.
2. Your 1st appointment is mostly an examination.
After you check in and fill out the usual paperwork, you and your physical therapist will sit and have a conversation to get to the bottom of your issue.
“The therapist will ask you a series of questions about the primary issue that brings you into the clinic,” says Berdan. This is your opportunity to verbalize your symptoms, when they started, and how they’re affecting you, whether the symptoms are caused by a sports injury, arthritis, fibromyalgia, a fall, or blood circulation issues.
The next part of the appointment could take many forms depending on what problems you’re having. To put it simply, “the therapist will perform tests and collect measurements to help determine an accurate diagnosis,” says Berdan.
This could include checking your vital signs, but it may also include doing simple exercises so your therapist can watch how you move and check your gait, posture, muscle function, or coordination, for example. Some exercises could potentially be a challenge for you, but it's not a bootcamp, so don't stress about how "in shape" you are before the appointment.
3. You and your PT will discuss a treatment plan
“Once the diagnosis is determined, the therapist will discuss a plan with you going forward, as well as set goals for therapy,” says Berdan. “Most likely, they will then establish a home exercise program for you and then send you on your way.”
A home exercise program entails simple exercises and stretches you can easily do at home that are designed to remedy your specific issue. Doing your physical therapy “homework” can help your symptoms improve faster.
All in all, your first physical therapy appointment will probably last around 45 to 60 minutes—but of course, it varies.
If you feel like you would benefit from physical therapy, you may need to talk to your primary care doctor first, since some states require a referral from a physician. Don't put it off: That first appointment can be intimidating, but it will have you one step closer to feeling better and moving a little easier.