Is Physical Therapy Painful?
Updated: Apr 25
One of the first questions most patients ask us is — is physical therapy painful?
That's a great question as physical therapy is often used after traumatic events or certain painful health conditions. Nobody wants to add any more pain to that.
The simple answer is no, but it doesn't mean that you will not feel any discomfort or soreness.
After all, physical therapy deals with recovery from injuries or surgeries, and, therefore, it’s normal that, initially, you will feel distressed in the areas more affected.
Let's dive deeper into the topic of pain after physical therapy (PT), what's normal, and what should be addressed right away.
Is physical therapy supposed to hurt?
It's important to preface that you only should get treated by a licensed physical therapist. They will give you a thorough examination and evaluate your condition before doing any hands-on work during the first visit. Once an individual treatment plan is in place, you'll start your sessions.
Now back to the question of whether physical therapy should hurt or not. When performed by a professional, PT should not hurt. However, it's an intense treatment, and it can get challenging.
Physical therapy includes deep stretches and exercises that are designed to push comfort boundaries.
Chances are that after each session, you will feel some level of soreness and discomfort. That's how your body gets stronger and heals. You can look at it as something like exercise - after a couple of hours at the gym working on your muscles, you will feel some soreness later.
This is often called "good pain," and it's part of the healing process. It also usually gets less and less intense with time and progressing therapy.
If you feel anything more, especially sharp pain after or during a PT session, you should address it right away. This way, your therapist can react and modify your treatment.
Communication is key because every person experiences the exercises and stretches differently and has a different threshold for pain.
Remember, the therapist can only know how you feel if you tell them.
Severe pain after physical therapy
Once again, after physical therapy, severe pain is never normal or acceptable, so it's vital to understand the distinction and not confuse it with soreness.
Soreness occurs after the muscles become tight and weak after PT exercises or stretches when the lactic acid builds up and causes irritation.
This discomfort will either decrease or completely go after icing the muscles and a couple of days pass. Soreness is usually irritating, but not severe.
How to know if what you're experiencing is severe pain after physical therapy?
According to the American Physical Therapy Association, sore muscles tend to feel tight and achy when at rest and "burning" and fatigued during exercise. If that burning turns to swell and inflammation, you need to see a doctor or your physical therapist.
Another way to know something's not right is if your discomfort doesn't go away or gets less intense after a warm-up.
Pain in the joints can also occur, and it's easier to distinguish because the pain is sharp.
Finally, you can be almost sure that you're feeling pain you're not supposed to if you're sore even after applying what's known as the RICE technique. RICE means Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. If your discomfort stays the same after all these steps — consult your physician or therapist.
Pain after physical therapy for neck
According to Mayoclinic.org, neck pain is a common complaint. Neck muscles can be strained from poor posture — whether it's leaning over your computer or hunching over your workbench.
If you experience pain after physical therapy for the neck, make sure you let your therapist know. You may have a muscle spasm, which can be relieved by icing and resting it (you might consider a neck brace if your physician recommends it).
If the cause for the pain is nerve compression, you should rest your neck until you see your doctor.
Pain after physical therapy for shoulder
Shoulder injuries are, unfortunately, a widespread reason for PT. If you experience pain after physical therapy for the shoulder, there's a chance the cause is an overworked muscle.
If this happens after therapy with the professional or after exercising at home, the best way to deal is to apply ice to the irritated muscles and rest.
Pain after physical therapy for knee
Rigorous activities and aging tend to cause plenty of problems for the knees and bring many people to PT.
This part of the body is very sensitive, and patients get quite upset and fearful if they experience pain after physical therapy for the knee.
A common reason for such pain is inflamed joints, as, during PT, the joints are taken to the limit to improve mobility and strength.
Often that causes pain, and the key to minimizing it is to find comfort for the knee joint by placing it in a slightly bent position. Icing should also be applied (over a cloth, not to injure the skin).
Again, don't wait to let your therapist know about these issues so they can adjust your treatment plan.
Pain after physical therapy for the back
Unfortunately, most of the population suffers from some back pain, and PT is one of the best solutions to deal with it.
Since your positions and postural stability get challenged during the PT sessions, there's a possibility you'll feel pain after physical therapy for the back.
Irritated nerves can cause that. The best course of action is to find a position where you feel most relief and stay in it to allow pressure to decrease from the nerve.
Lumbar nerve irritation is pretty common, and an excellent position for that is to lie on the back with pillows or blankets propped under the knees.
What to do if you feel pain after physical therapy treatment?
There are a few other things that may bring relief if you feel pain after physical therapy treatment.
Drink plenty of water — it helps muscles recover.
Stretch lightly. Finish every exercise with light stretches as they help the body remove waste and promote muscle recovery.
Move. Yes, if you're in pain, you probably want to just lay on the couch. But by being active in your daily life, you help reduce muscle pain faster. Please don't overdo it, though.
So is it normal to have pain after physical therapy? Yes, as long as the pain is the "good pain" and gets remedied by simple actions such as rest, icing, or light stretches.
You should never tolerate or ignore severe pain, though. The best course of action, in that case, is to call your doctor or physical therapist and schedule an appointment.
Physical Therapy in Miracle Rehabilitation and Physical Therapy Center
Miracle Physical Therapy and Massage Center Inc. provides physical therapy and massage therapy for diverse diagnoses.
Our physical therapists understand how important it is to maintain an active lifestyle and providing therapy plans and implementation for most medical situations, including sports injuries, traumas after car accidents, strokes, or other debilitating injuries.
Whether you've been injured on the field, are recovering from surgery, or simply twisted your back while gardening, we are dedicated to getting you back on track.