10 Most Common Physical Therapy Techniques

A Deep Dive into Commonly Used PTA Interventions

Older man performing exercises in physical therapy

Physical therapist assistants treat all types of patients for a wide range injuries, illnesses, and chronic health conditions. In collaboration with their supervising physical therapist, PTAs deliver hands-on treatments designed to reduce pain, promote healing, and help patients accomplish their rehabilitation goals.

While physical therapy is highly effective in treating many types of medical issues, there are certain treatments and techniques commonly used by PTAs to address a variety of ailments. If you’re considering a career in physical therapy, it’s wise to familiarize yourself with some of the treatments you’ll likely be performing on a regular basis. Let’s explore 10 of the most common physical therapy techniques and the impact they can make for patients.

Still trying to decide if a career as a PTA is the right choice for you? Click here to learn how to become a physical therapist assistant.

1. Range of Motion (ROM) Exercises

The human body has an incredible interconnected system of muscles, joints, nerves, and connective tissues that allow us to move. Range of motion (ROM) exercises are useful in restoring function to any parts of the body that become compromised due to injury or illness.

Physical therapists prescribe ROM exercises based on each patient’s circumstances and recovery goals, and PTAs are often the ones who supervise or assist patients during their prescribed routine. There are multiple types of range of motion exercises, which are most commonly divided into three categories:

Passive range of motion exercises involve the PTA or physical therapist moving the affected body part with no effort from the patient. Often used in the earlier stages of recovery, these techniques can loosen stiff joints and muscles that have been immobilized due to surgery, paralysis, or other causes.

Active-assist range of motion exercises require more effort from the patient, with a PTA or physical therapist on hand to help them complete the motions correctly. Straps or bands are commonly used in these exercises to aid in stretches or guided movements that restore mobility to the affected area.

Active range of motion exercises can generally be completed by the patient on their own, with minimal input from a physical therapist assistant beyond advice on posture or the correct form for each movement.

When restoring mobility to an injured area, it’s important to avoid moving too fast too soon, and to communicate with patients to understand what they’re feeling and how their body is responding. As part of their education, physical therapist assistants learn how to safely perform and supervise ROM exercises without causing excessive discomfort to patients or risking a setback in their recovery.

2. Therapeutic Exercises

Whereas range of motion exercises primarily restore mobility, therapeutic exercises build strength or improve conditioning in different parts of the body. While they’re often used as a follow-up to ROM exercises as recovery progresses, therapeutic exercises are also commonly prescribed on their own due to their effectiveness in relieving pain and restoring function.

Therapeutic exercises usually involve some form of resistance, whether in the form of free weights, elastic bands, or simply a patient’s body weight. By strengthening specific muscles and reinforcing certain movements, these exercises help patients continue their recovery and improve control over their bodies, whether they’re healing from a sports injury or a neurological condition.

3. Manual Therapy Techniques

For many physical therapy patients, manual therapy techniques are a significant part of the plan of care, meaning PTAs must be very comfortable with these hands-on treatment methods. Manual therapy can be very effective in releasing tension, reducing pain, and restoring mobility in patients with many health conditions.

Some manual therapy techniques like joint mobilization and assisted movements fall under the umbrella of range of motion exercises. However, manual therapy also includes other treatments like massage and soft tissue mobilization, which can promote blood flow and encourage healing in many areas of the body. Other examples include stretches or movements that stretch stiff muscles or reduce nerve pain.

Because manual therapy techniques often involve working on sensitive or even painful areas, it’s paramount for PTAs to build trust and communicate effectively with their patients. Close collaboration with a physical therapist is also essential to ensure each patient’s treatment plan reflects how they’re responding to the prescribed techniques.

Elderly patient doing gait training exercises in physical therapy

4. Gait Training

Everybody’s natural walking pattern is unique due to differences in their physical build. However, there are many medical conditions that can compromise our ability to walk with a normal, healthy stride. Gait training is a collection of physical therapy techniques that helps people improve their ability to walk safely, efficiently, and without pain.

Physical symptoms that can benefit from gait training include limping, shuffling, and difficulty with maintaining balance or supporting one’s body weight. After initial assessment by a physical therapist, PTAs employ a variety of methods to address gait issues. In addition to helping patients perform range of motion and strengthening exercises, other common treatments include stepping over obstacles, walking backwards, or “target stepping” to improve coordination.

Gait issues are generally caused by underlying issues, from lower-body injuries to muscle imbalances to neurological conditions like cerebral palsy or Parkinson’s disease. They become increasingly common in older adults, so PTAs who treat gait issues must take appropriate precautions to ensure their patients’ safety during therapy sessions.

5. Modalities (e.g. Ultrasound, Electrical Stimulation)

Therapeutic modalities include a variety of tools and devices to encourage a physiological response in the patient. Like with other physical therapy techniques, the ultimate goal is to promote healing and restore function, though each modality does so in its own way. After a treatment is prescribed by a physical therapist, PTAs often prepare patients and equipment for sessions, and sometimes administer the treatments themselves. Common modalities used by physical therapist assistants include:

Electrical stimulation uses safe levels of electricity to stimulate targeted muscles or nerves, usually to reduce pain or alleviate tension. It can help release the body’s natural painkilling compounds, reducing the patient’s need for prescription medication.

Ultrasound therapy harnesses the vibrations from sound waves to stimulate parts of the body unreachable through manual therapy. At varying intensities, it can be focused on different types of tissues to promote healing and relieve pain.

Biofeedback helps patients learn better control of their bodily functions and responses by providing real-time feedback on certain movements or actions. It’s proven to be effective in treating numerous conditions that affect both physical and mental health.

Laser therapy is a form of heat therapy used in many physical therapy clinics to encourage healing, manage inflammation, and reduce pain. It’s most commonly used to treat injuries to muscles or connective tissues.

Each of these treatments comes with their own precautions and risk factors, which underscores the importance of effective and ongoing communication between PTAs, patients, and physical therapists.

6. Balance and Proprioception Training

If you’re a relatively healthy person, it’s easy to take your body awareness for granted. But for people with a variety of conditions that affect their balance or sense of positioning in space, moving through life and accomplishing daily tasks can become a significant challenge—or even an injury risk.

Proprioception is what enables us to grab something off the top shelf without seeing it, or to walk down steps without staring at our feet. Balance exercises can improve daily functioning and reduce the risk of fall, or build lower-body strength when recovering from injury. Proprioception training can also be useful in improving sensory or motor function in patients with nerve damage or partial paralysis.

Two elderly people using stretch bands in physical therapy

7. Patient Education and Home Exercise Programs

For many physical therapy patients, staying on track in their rehabilitation requires continuing treatment at home. Most patients will only get a few hours of supervised therapy a month at most, so home exercises are an essential piece of the puzzle for an efficient recovery.

Physical therapist assistants frequently educate their patients on the importance of staying consistent with home exercises, and demonstrate how to perform them properly. PTAs may also show their patients how to use clinic-provided equipment like resistance bands, or how to use common household items to perform exercises without the need for specialized equipment.

In addition to guiding their patients through exercises to treat specific conditions, PTAs and physical therapists also develop general exercise plans to promote all-around wellness. Staying active is one of the best ways to reduce the risk of illness or injury, and PTAs work to help every patient achieve a level of activity appropriate for their circumstances and overall health.

8. Aquatic Therapy

Many physical therapy clinics use aquatic therapy (also known as aquatherapy) to supplement other treatment techniques. Performing partially weighted exercises while floating in a pool helps patients move their bodies without experiencing the full effect of gravity. The water is usually warm, which also helps soothe recovering muscles, loosen stiff joints, and relieve pain.

Aquatherapy is a valuable tool for restoring strength or range of motion in many types of patients, from musculoskeletal injuries to neurological conditions. Besides the physiological benefits of aquatic therapy, moving their bodies without the pain or instability they experience on dry ground gives many patients a boost in morale and confidence.

Physical therapist assistants routinely assist with aquatic therapy by leading patients through exercise routines and helping them get into and out of the pool safely. PTAs also show patients how to operate devices like underwater treadmills or other exercise equipment. Some aquatic therapy facilities even have moveable platforms that can customize the level of buoyancy (and therefore resistance) as a patient’s weight-bearing capabilities increase.

9. Heat and Cold Therapy

Heat and cold therapy utilize our bodies’ natural response to changing temperatures to achieve a desired therapeutic effect. Heat therapy (also known as thermotherapy) is useful for encouraging blood flow, relaxing muscle spasms, and encouraging flexibility. Cold therapy (also known as cryotherapy) is commonly used to manage inflammation and relieve pain.

Thermotherapy and cryotherapy are some of the most-utilized therapeutic methods for all types of musculoskeletal injuries, and it’s common for PTAs to use both on the same patient in the same session. For example, heat packs can help loosen up a joint before exercise, with an ice pack used at the end of the session to reduce swelling.

Physical therapist assistants must exercise precautions to ensure their patients don’t incur skin damage from excessive heat or cold. In some patients, heat or cold therapy can cause a risk of dizziness or fainting, especially when standing up too quickly afterward. As with any therapeutic technique, patient safety must always remain top of mind. This is especially important in patients with limited cognition or communication abilities, as they may not be able to express any discomfort they’re experiencing.

10. Taping and Strapping Techniques

At all stages of recovery, it’s common for injured body parts to need some extra support so they can heal properly (or perform better during physical activity). Physical therapist assistants use taping and strapping techniques for a variety of therapeutic purposes, especially those who work with athletes or active individuals.

Taping and strapping are terms which are often used interchangeably. More specifically, strapping is done with rigid athletic tape, and generally used to limit the range of motion and prevent re-injury (in a dislocated finger or recovering ankle injury, for example). Kinesio tape is much more stretchy, and often used to improve muscle function, or to help correct posture or movement patterns.

Close up of an elderly woman using weights in physical therapy

Master Essential Physical Therapy Techniques at Provo College

A career as a physical therapist assistant comes with lots of variety, which is one of the best things about the job. Becoming proficient in the techniques listed above will ensure any PTA is equipped to make a positive difference for their patients.

When choosing where to train as a physical therapist assistant, it’s important to pick a program that equips you with practical skills in addition to classroom knowledge. The Physical Therapist Assistant program at Provo College is designed to set you up for success, with hands-on skills training from experienced instructors. You’ll also complete supervised clinical work with real physical therapy patients to build your confidence as you prepare for your new career.

Beyond their formal education, it’s essential for PTAs to stay up to date on the latest treatment methods and techniques. PTAs who prioritize ongoing training to stay current on advances in therapy techniques and medical technology will be well-positioned for a long and successful career helping people heal.

Want to learn more about the specialized opportunities available for PTAs? Click here to explore our list of the top physical therapist assistant jobs.