How Long Does Physical Therapy Take to Work?
You have received a recommendation from your physician that you try physical therapy. However, you’ve heard that it may take months to even see results! This is a worry for many people that is not entirely accurate, as many factors influence how quickly or slowly physical therapy works.
Factors That Affect Treatment Time
Physical therapy is an effective treatment for a variety of musculoskeletal conditions, all which take various time to heal. Your physical therapist will provide a thorough evaluation, understanding how your injury is affecting your life, and then prescribe and perform manual therapy, stretching, and exercises that benefit you the most, along with strategies for how to continue completing daily activities while healing.
Injury Natural Healing Time
The length of healing time for an injury affects how quickly you would see results from physical therapy. For example, a fracture takes around six weeks to heal, while chronic tendonitis can take two or more months to heal. A car accident with multiple fractures and ligament tears will take months longer to heal from than a singular ankle fracture.
Compliance to Exercises
A large factor in physical therapy results is whether or not a patient follows the instructions of their physical therapist. Exercises should be completed at a specific frequency, such as every day or every other day, to allow the muscle, tendon, and ligament tissue to recover and strengthen appropriately. You can think of your exercise program just like a prescription of a medication from your physician. You wouldn’t expect any difference in the effect of a medication if you don’t take it, just like you shouldn’t expect to improve your muscular or joint pain without completing your exercises!
Compliance to Activity Modifications
At your appointments, your physical therapist will recommend activities to avoid, such as running right after an ankle sprain, or climbing ladders after a rotator cuff repair, to optimize your recovery. If you do not follow these, your recovery time will be longer than it should be. Your therapist will also work with you to modify certain essential duties (such as cooking for your family or essential job duties) to allow you to continue living your life while you recover.
Average Healing Times for Different Tissue
In addition to collaborating with your physical therapist, it is important to realize that different body tissues have different healing times.
A simple fracture can take around six to eight weeks to heal, whereas a complex fracture with reconstruction surgery can take months to heal. With bone injuries, it is important to follow the recommendations of your healthcare team including your physician and physical therapist on what activities you are allowed to do. In addition to the bone healing time, you may need months of physical therapy to strengthen muscle weakness around the bone.
Ligaments and Tendons
Ligament tissue varies with healing times based on how much of the ligament is injured. Minor tears take around one month, moderate tears take around two months, and complete tears that require surgical repair can take six months to one year to recover! If you need surgery, your surgeon will have a specific protocol for restrictions on your movement that your physical therapist will help you understand.
Muscle tissue tears are called strains and can take around three weeks to three months to heal. Minor strains involve a small muscle tear and heal with rest and gentle stretching. Severe strains/tears may require surgery or immobilization for weeks to recover, followed by exercises to recover function. You may still notice pain and weakness for a few months after a severe muscle tear, or even after your physical therapy concludes.
What You Should Do After a PT Session
Your physical therapist will spend the session improving the mobility of the muscle and joints around your injury with manual therapy, stretching, and exercises. They will educate you on exercises to complete at home, recovery techniques, and movements to avoid to improve your recovery. They may suggest that you work on heating or icing around your injury. You may also receive instructions to avoid activities like running, lifting, or moving your injured area a certain way.
Your home exercise program should be completed at least once every day to be consistent in stretching and strengthening the tissue around your injury. This process will reduce inflammation and promote the gradual return to normal strength and mobility of the muscles, joints, and bones that were injured.
Does physical therapy work? If you are asking this question after reading this article, make sure you address your concerns with your physical therapist. Physical therapy works for individuals who follow the exercise programs and recommendations of their physical therapist. As is true with many efforts, you truly get out of physical therapy what you put into it.