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What to Expect at Your First Physical Therapy Session
For Patients

What to Expect at Your First Physical Therapy Session

How much does physical therapy cost, what to wear, and more…

Attending your first physical therapy session can be overwhelming. People considering physical therapy often hesitate because they have so many questions. How much does physical therapy cost? How long is a physical therapy session? What do I wear? 

In reality, physical therapy is designed to be a comfortable, soothing process, much like mental health therapy. A good physical therapist will do everything they can to make you feel at home—it’s their job. But in case you want to be extra prepared for your first physical therapy session, we wrote this explainer answering all your physical therapy questions. 

What to expect at your first physical exam

At your first physical therapy session, you can expect the following:

  1. Intake and assessment: The therapist will review your medical history, discuss your symptoms, and learn your goals for therapy. They will ask about your pain levels, functional limitations, and any other relevant information. Much like a consultation in mental health counseling, this provides them with the necessary information to personalize your treatment plan. 
  2. Physical evaluation: The therapist will assess your posture, strength, flexibility, balance, and range of motion. This evaluation may involve some hands-on examination and functional tests.
  3. Treatment plan: Based on the assessment, your therapist will develop a personalized treatment plan, which may include exercises, manual therapy, modalities, and other therapeutic techniques.
  4. Exercises: Your therapist will teach you specific exercises to perform during the session and at home to improve your condition. They may also offer advice on proper body mechanics to prevent further injury.
  5. Communication: Throughout the session, your therapist will encourage you to ask questions, provide feedback, and express any concerns. Open communication ensures a more effective treatment process.

Remember, your progress will depend on your commitment to the therapy process and adherence to the prescribed home exercises. You can only make real strides if you are doing the necessary work at home.

How much is physical therapy? 

The cost of physical therapy varies depending on factors such as location, insurance coverage, the therapist's experience, and the complexity of your condition. On average, physical therapy sessions can cost anywhere from $50 to $350 per session in the United States. 

If you have health insurance, your plan may cover part or all of the cost, but you should check with your insurance provider for details on coverage and any copayments or deductibles you may have. Some therapists offer sliding scale fees or payment plans to accommodate patients with financial constraints. It's essential to research and compare costs in your area for an accurate estimate.

What is the physical therapy 8 minute rule?

To better understand the cost of physical therapy, it helps to know about the 8-minute rule. Physical therapy sessions can vary in duration, so the 8-minute rule was created to help standardize the billing process. It helps determine how to bill patients for time spent on various treatments during a therapy session, using a system of units.

Each treatment or modality is assigned a specific number of units, with one unit equating to 8-22 minutes spent on the service. If the treatment takes 23-37 minutes, it is billed as two units, and so on.

According to the 8-minute rule, to bill a unit for a timed treatment, the therapist must provide at least 8 minutes of that specific service. The total minutes of timed services are summed, and the appropriate number of units are billed based on the total treatment time.

It's important to note that the 8-minute rule is a billing concept and does not dictate the quality or effectiveness of the therapy session. The therapist's primary focus should always be providing the best care for the patient.

How much is physical therapy without insurance?

The cost of physical therapy without insurance can vary in the same way as the cost of physical therapy with insurance. The difference is that without insurance, you will have to pay the full cost of physical therapy out of pocket. As we mentioned earlier, in the United States the price for a physical therapy session usually ranges from $50 to $350. 

Note that physical therapy without insurance is not necessarily more expensive than physical therapy with insurance. If physical therapy is not covered at all under a particular insurance plan, that patient will pay the same amount as someone without insurance. So, if you don’t have insurance, don’t give up on physical therapy right away. You are probably in the same boat as many other patients.

Remember that communication is key; you can occasionally find a better rate for physical therapy sessions just by asking. Some physical therapy clinics may offer discounts, sliding scale fees, or payment plans for patients without insurance or with limited financial resources. Always inquire about available options to help make physical therapy more affordable.

What to wear to physical therapy

A surprising number of people wonder what to wear for physical therapy, but it doesn’t need to be too complicated. When attending a physical therapy session, it's essential to wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothing that allows for easy movement and provides access to the body part being treated. Here are some suggestions on what to wear:

  1. Tops: Wear a breathable, moisture-wicking shirt or a comfortable t-shirt. If your upper body is the focus, consider a tank top or sports bra for easier access to your shoulder, neck, or back.
  2. Bottoms: Opt for athletic shorts, yoga pants, or sweatpants that allow for a full range of motion. If you're being treated for a lower extremity issue, shorts are preferred as they provide easier access to your legs and knees.
  3. Footwear: Choose comfortable, supportive athletic shoes or sneakers. Avoid sandals, flip-flops, or dress shoes, as they may not provide enough support or stability during exercises.
  4. Orthotics or braces: If you have any prescribed orthotics or braces, bring them to your sessions to ensure proper fit and function during exercises.
  5. Hair and jewelry: Tie long hair back and remove any large or dangling jewelry that might interfere with your treatment.

Generally speaking, you can expect to dress like you’re going to play sports. The primary goal is comfort and ease of movement, so choose clothing that allows you to move freely and doesn't restrict your therapist's access to the area being treated.

Why is physical therapy important?

Physical therapy is important for several reasons:

  1. Rehabilitation: Physical therapy helps patients recover from injuries, surgeries, or chronic conditions by restoring strength, flexibility, and function. It aids in promoting a faster, safer, and more effective recovery process.
  2. Pain management: Therapists use various techniques, including manual therapy, therapeutic exercises, and modalities, to alleviate pain and reduce inflammation without relying on medication.
  3. Mobility improvement: Physical therapy addresses issues like muscle imbalances, joint stiffness, or range of motion limitations, helping patients improve their mobility and overall quality of life.
  4. Fall prevention: By focusing on balance and coordination, physical therapy can minimize the risk of falls, particularly in older adults or patients with neurological disorders.
  5. Injury prevention: Therapists educate patients on proper body mechanics, ergonomics, and posture to prevent future injuries, particularly for athletes or individuals with physically demanding jobs.
  6. Management of chronic conditions: Physical therapy can help manage chronic conditions such as arthritis, diabetes, or neurological disorders by promoting movement, maintaining function, and improving overall well-being.
  7. Non-surgical alternatives: In some cases, physical therapy can serve as a non-invasive alternative to surgery by addressing the underlying causes of pain and dysfunction.
  8. Post-surgical recovery: For patients who have undergone surgery, physical therapy is crucial for restoring function, reducing complications, and facilitating a successful return to daily activities.

Overall, physical therapy plays a vital role in optimizing health, function, and quality of life for patients across various age groups and medical conditions.

Signs of a bad physical therapist 

Remember that your first physical therapy session is an opportunity for you to evaluate your physical therapist too. You can likely change physical therapists after the first session if need be. Here’s a list of things to look out for in case you get the feeling your physical therapist is underperforming:

  1. Poor communication: Difficulty in explaining treatment plans, not actively listening to your concerns, or failing to answer your questions clearly are all signs that your PT could do better.
  2. Lack of individualized care: Are they providing generic treatment plans without considering your specific needs, goals, or progress? Does the treatment plan make sense for your needs?
  3. Inadequate assessment: A physical therapist who does not conduct a thorough evaluation of your condition or reassess your progress regularly is providing suboptimal care.
  4. Ignoring pain or discomfort: Disregarding your pain or discomfort during treatment, or insisting you push through it without addressing the underlying cause are big red flags in physical therapy.
  5. Unprofessional behavior: These probably go without saying, but no physical therapist (or any healthcare provider) should be showing up late, frequently canceling appointments, being inattentive during sessions, or engaging in inappropriate conduct.
  6. Lack of patient education: Is your PT failing to teach you about your condition, proper exercise techniques, or self-care strategies to manage symptoms and prevent future issues? Most of the work in physical therapy happens at home, so you need a good teacher to show you the way.
  7. Stagnant progress: Is your PT adaptable? Are they modifying your treatment plan when you're not making progress or are they failing to provide alternative approaches?
  8. High patient turnover: A PT who is rushing through appointments, treating multiple patients simultaneously, or providing inadequate one-on-one attention is being unprofessional.

If you experience any of these signs, consider discussing your concerns with the physical therapist. If the issues persist, you may want to seek a second opinion or find another therapist who better aligns with your needs and expectations.

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About the Author

Harry Gatlin

Harry is passionate about the power of language to make complex systems like health insurance simpler and fairer. He received his BA in English from Williams College and his MFA in Creative Writing from The University of Alabama. In his spare time, he is writing a book of short stories called You Must Relax.