If you are suffering from chronic pain or limited mobility, or have an injury that needs rehabilitation, you can benefit from seeing a physical therapist. A physical therapist is a healthcare professional who helps patients manage their pain and improve limited mobility by guiding them through science-based movements and exercises (also sometimes called PT sessions). Your primary care doctor may refer you to physical therapy if you need rehabilitation after an accident, or you may be referred to a physical therapist by a specialist if you're encountering mobility issues due to chronic illness, such as osteoarthritis, or a neurological disorder, such as a stroke. You usually don't need a referral from a primary care doctor to visit a physical therapist if you are paying for treatment out of pocket, but your insurance company, health insurance plan or health care provider may require a referral before you can be reimbursed for the cost of the visit.
During a physical therapy appointment, your physical therapist will assess your health and mobility needs and determine a course of treatment to help you start moving your body in a safe way. Instead of prescribing pharmaceuticals, a physical therapist typically prescribes a therapeutic exercise plan or movement treatment plan with the ultimate goal of helping you regain your strength and mobility. The physical therapist should safely coach you through exercises designed to address your specific strength and mobility needs. Often you will use medical exercise equipment during the physical therapy session such as treadmills, steps, medicine balls, resistance bands, isometric exercises, weights and more. Depending on your needs and the state of your health, your physical therapy appointment might be anywhere from 30 to 120 minutes. Although physical therapists primarily work with their patients on movement and flexibility, they can prescribe medications and often work in tandem with referring doctors.
People seek physical therapy to treat myriad health complaints. Physical therapy can help patients recover from surgery and injuries, increase athletic flexibility and mobility, and improve strength, endurance and balance. Physical therapy can help relieve symptoms of chronic health problems, restore physical functions such as walking and fine motor skills, and mitigate the pain of arthritis. Physical therapy may target certain muscle groups or particular joints, and some therapists specialize in fields such as sports medicine, therapy for the elderly, or pediatrics. There is no age limit for physical therapy patients, as people of all ages can benefit from the science-based movements of this medical treatment. Some physical therapists specialize in disciplines such as gait training or ultrasound treatment for strained or pulled muscles.
Pricing for physical therapy will depend on whether you are paying the therapist directly or if your insurance covers treatment and you pay a co-pay. The number of sessions prescribed and your out of pocket or co-pay costs will determine your total costs.
Here are the factors that affect the average cost for physical therapy.
If you have health insurance through your job or a government program, or have purchased private insurance, you likely have access to physical therapy (PT) services. Coverage amounts vary depending on the plan's details and whether you use in-network or out-of-network providers. Your insurance carrier may pay physical therapy costs upfront regardless of deductible, while other insurance coverage only kicks in once a plan deductible is met. Physical therapy co-pays can be $20 to $50 or more, depending on the insurance plan. For example, Cigna's Open Access Plan includes physical therapy in the short-term rehabilitation category, along with hearing, speech, chiropractic and other therapies. This plan allows for 36 sessions per year and pays 80 percent of each visit's fee after a $20 co-pay. Medicare offers access to unlimited physical therapy appointments within a calendar year as long as they are demonstrated to be medically necessary for the patient.
After an initial evaluation, a physical therapist will recommend an exercise treatment plan and can work with you to accommodate your insurance. Some physical therapists may also offer a payment plan for out-of-pocket costs.
Paying for physical therapy without insurance
Patients usually don't need to have physical therapy coverage from an insurance company to see a provider, but it will be far more expensive than it would be with insurance. Depending on the type of physical therapy you need and the length of the session, paying out of pocket can range anywhere from $75 to $350 per session. Standard out-of-pocket rates average $150 per session, nationwide._ _The cost of treatment can also vary depending on the length of the treatment plan. If you only need a few sessions to treat a minor sports injury, you may end up paying a few hundred dollars. On the other hand, rehabilitation after a major surgery — such as a hip replacement — might cost thousands of dollars due to the greater number of sessions. Although these may seem like heavy additional costs, allowing your body to heal properly can save you a great deal of money in the long run by preventing long-term injury or loss of mobility.
Working with a personal trainer to increase strength and mobility can be a more affordable option than physical therapy over the long term; you'll need approval from your physical therapist to ensure it's safe to begin. Personal trainers may charge an average of $40-$80 per hour to help people of all ages safely strengthen their muscles and increase their flexibility.
Your physical therapy treatment may require that you have some specialized equipment at your home or that you have your own personal equipment for use at the physical therapist's offices. Items that may increase the cost of your visit can include hot or cold packs, walkers, exercise balls, and balance boards. All this equipment can help you get the most out of your physical therapy treatment. Hot and cold packs may cost $5-$25, an exercise ball costs about $20 and a balance board costs an average of $25-$100, depending on make and model.
Choosing a physical therapist
Whether you're suffering from an acute injury or interested in rehabilitating a long-term issue, a physical therapist has had years of training to address your needs. Physical therapists "are often an important part of rehabilitation, treatment, and prevention of patients with chronic conditions, illnesses, or injuries," according to the U.S. Department of Labor. To become a physical therapist, one must complete six to seven years of education, including a bachelor's degree and a three-year Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. Physical therapists study biomechanics, anatomy, physiology, neuroscience and pharmacology, and complete at least 30 weeks of supervised clinical work in a range of specialities such as acute care and orthopedic care. Regardless of what state you live in, physical therapists are required to be licensed, so always confirm that the professional you are working with is in good standing with the state licensing board. Read reviews from former clients to learn about others' experiences. Physical therapy can be physically and emotionally demanding as you push your body to master new skills or relearn old ones. It's important to find a professional you feel safe with and trust to guide you through this process. Before you begin treatment, call and speak with the physical therapist on the phone or meet them in person to make sure you have a good personality fit.
Look for a physical therapist who can provide care for your specific health problem, such as back pain or multiple sclerosis, and who has received training relevant to your needs. According to the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties, physical therapists can earn a board certification in one of nine specialties: Cardiovascular & Pulmonary, Clinical Electrophysiology, Geriatrics, Neurology, Oncology, Orthopaedics, Pediatrics, Sports, and Women's Health. To receive this board specialist certification, the physical therapist must complete a minimum of 2,000 hours of clinical work in their specialty area and pass an exam. This is in addition to their Doctor of Physical Therapy degree. You may pay more if you choose to work with a specialized physical therapist, as their advanced training may command higher rates. You may not need a specialist if you are rehabilitating from a common injury.
Most people can get a referral from their doctor, especially if their insurance provider requires it. Insurance companies generally will cover a certain number of sessions, so check your insurance coverage when beginning work with your physical therapist.
If your insurance won't cover physical therapy, you may be able to save money by asking your provider if they offer lower fees for patients who pay cash. If you pay in advance, you may be able to buy session packages, which will lower the cost of each individual therapy session. If you've been cleared to work with a personal trainer in lieu of a physical therapist, some personal trainers offer modified forms of physical therapy such as mobility classes or individual therapy sessions. Some personal trainers may even make home visits.
- Read client reviews and follow up with references to make sure you're choosing the right physical therapist for you. For more, check out these tips for smart hiring.