News News January 18, 2017

Seven Conditions You Didn’t Know Could Be Treated by Physical Therapists

Physical therapists may be best known for helping patients regain mobility after surgery on knees or backs, or helping to relieve chronic musculoskeletal conditions. But physical therapists are movement specialists who treat a number of conditions, some of which may surprise you.

Childhood Obesity

Physical therapists, particularly those specializing in pediatrics, are playing an increasingly important role in combating childhood obesity. This condition affects more than a third of the children and adolescents in the United States.

Pediatric physical therapists typically collaborate with other specialists, such as dieticians and nutritionists, at healthy weight clinics in pediatric hospitals. These clinics are dedicated to changing behaviors that lead to weight gain. One of those behaviors strongly associated with obesity is lack of physical activity.

Pediatric physical therapists bring a unique skill set to treating childhood obesity. They’re trained in child development, they know how to modify treatment plans to accommodate a child's developmental needs, and they make sure to involve the family in the child's treatment.

Down Syndrome

Born with a full or partial extra copy of chromosome 21, babies with Down syndrome have intellectual as well as physical disabilities. As babies, these children typically have low muscle tone, poor balance and posture problems. They also have trouble managing complex movements.

Children with Down Syndrome can gain strength and improve their coordination through early intervention with physical therapy. Physical therapists work with babies on basic motor skills, such as crawling or sitting. They engage children with games and fun tasks to improve their muscle strength. As the children get older, physical therapists can also suggest exercises to stay healthy.


Millions of Americans struggle with the loss of bladder control. Those who suffer this condition often have weak pelvic-floor muscles. These are critical to supporting the internal organs and the lower back. A patient may have weak pelvic-floor muscles for any number of reasons – surgery, episiotomy, spasm or lack of use. Whatever the cause, physical therapists can provide their patients with pelvic-floor exercises and other conditioning that strengthen those muscles so that these patients can control their bladders.

Neonatal care

Babies born prematurely may suffer a number of health problems, from breathing troubles to poor muscle strength. Working with other health practitioners in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), physical therapists can educate new parents in how to properly hold, position and feed their babies. Once these infants are discharged from the NICU, physical therapists work with parents to help their child improve muscle strength, encourage and adapt activities that promote movement, and master motor skills.

Opioid Painkiller Dependence

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has recommended physical therapy as a first-line treatment for chronic pain in response to America’s opioid epidemic.

About 50 million people in the United States suffer from chronic pain to severe pain, according to a 2015 National Institutes of Health study. To manage that pain, many of them are prescribed opioids. Unfortunately, prescription pain killers are highly addictive and can lead to misuse, heroin addiction and death from lethal drug overdoses.

The CDC identified physical therapy as a safer alternative for managing chronic pain. Physical therapists can not only help alleviate their patients' pain through movement and exercise, but they also make patients less fearful of pain itself and encourage them to take a more active approach to getting better.

Traumatic Brain Injury

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is damage to the brain from extreme force; the most common causes are falls, car crashes, or blows to the head. Patients with TBI may be weak, suffer cognitive and/or sensory impairments, or have behavioral and emotional problems.

Physical therapists can assist these patients in a number of ways, particularly in improving physical independence. Examples include assisting the patient with muscle and joint flexibility, balance, and muscle strengthening. The goal is to encourage mobility, whether it's getting the patient to sit, stand, or use a wheelchair or walker.


The pain and swelling caused by arthritis, the inflammation of joints, can limit one’s mobility. This can lead to joint stiffness and poor physical fitness. With physical therapy, patients learn how to improve their strength and mobility, correct their posture, use walking aids, and perform daily activities in such a way that won’t stress the joints.