Orthopedic Rehabilitation

Orthopedic physical therapy can be life-changing. A skilled physical therapist (PT) can get you back on track with your daily activities after surgery, an injury, accident, or illness

That’s because an orthopedic PT specializes in diagnosing and treating conditions that affect any part of your musculoskeletal system.

An orthopedic PT works to integrate all your other bodily systems — especially your neurological and cardiovascular systems — with your musculoskeletal system to treat your injury or condition appropriately.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at what orthopedic physical therapy is, when you may need it, and the types of treatments it includes.

What’s orthopedic physical therapy?

Orthopedic physical therapy involves the care of your entire musculoskeletal system, which includes your:

  • bones
  • muscles
  • ligaments and tendons
  • joints
  • connective tissue

A PT who specializes in orthopedics can evaluate your condition and diagnose the issue or condition you have. This will include:

  • determining the appropriate movement diagnosis
  • creating a treatment plan
  • administering therapeutic care
  • educating you about how to manage your current injury or condition to prevent further injury

Orthopedic physical therapy is provided in outpatient clinics, hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, sports facilities, and even in your home.

The entry-level degree for a PT these days is a clinical doctorate. So when you go to work with a PT, you’re working with a doctor of physical therapy, who has completed three years of graduate school studies.

Conditions affecting the musculoskeletal system

Orthopedic physical therapy can be a primary or complementary treatment option for the following types of musculoskeletal conditions:

  • arthritis
  • bursitis
  • cancer
  • frozen shoulder
  • knee instability
  • joint pain
  • limited range of motion
  • lower back pain
  • Lyme disease
  • lymphedema
  • muscular dystrophy
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • plantar fasciitis
  • scoliosis
  • spinal stenosis
  • stroke

Some PTs specialize in treating specific patient populations.

A sports PT, for example, can help athletes move safely in an effort to prevent injuries. They can also help athletes recover from sports-related injuries.

A PT who works primarily with older adults can help their patients improve their balance to prevent falls. They can also help older adults recover from knee or hip replacement surgery, or maintain their strength and mobility as they age.

Other PTs specialize in helping people recover from conditions like cancer or low back pain, or the effects of pregnancy and childbirth.

Rehabilitation after surgery

After you have surgery, orthopedic physical therapy may help reduce pain, normalize your walking, improve your range of motion, and prevent excessive scar tissue buildup.

Additionally, it may also help you regain your balance, strength, and mobility.

Patients often work with orthopedic PTs after surgeries such as:

  • hip replacement
  • knee replacement
  • knee arthroscopy
  • rotator cuff repair
  • heart surgery
  • cancer surgery

Rehabilitation after acute injury

An acute injury is one that happens as a result of a single trauma to the body. If you sprain an ankle, tear your meniscus, or herniate a disc in your back, an orthopedic PT can help you:

  • manage pain and swelling
  • function with the weight-bearing restrictions your doctor recommends
  • regain as much of your range of motion as possible
  • rebuild your strength
  • learn how to move in ways that don’t make your condition flare up again

Rehabilitation after chronic injury

A chronic injury is damage to your body that occurs over time, usually because your movement patterns have caused small, repetitive injuries to your tendons, bones, or joints. Examples of chronic injuries include:

  • shin splints
  • carpal tunnel syndrome
  • tennis elbow

An orthopedic PT can analyze your movement patterns to isolate the source of the injury. They can also help you manage symptoms like pain and swelling, and can educate you about how to move safely to avoid injuries in the future.

What types of treatments are used?

Orthopedic PTs use a wide range of therapeutic modalities, exercises, assistive devices, and patient education methods to help you.

Depending on how your therapist uses these treatments, they may be:

  • passive modalities (the therapist gives you a treatment), or
  • active modalities (you perform or participate in a movement)

Here are some examples of treatments that may be used with orthopedic physical therapy.

Hot/cold therapy

Orthopedic PTs use both cryotherapy (cold therapy) and thermotherapy (heat therapy) to treat musculoskeletal pain and swelling.

Exercise therapy

Your therapist will create an exercise plan that will likely include strengthening, mobility, or balance-building exercises.

It’s a good idea to practice the exercises with your therapist at first so you know you’re doing them correctly. Once you know how to do the exercises properly, you will be encouraged to do them at home on a regular basis to help boost your strength and mobility.

E-stim (TENS or NMES)

There is some evidenceTrusted Source that electrical stimulation has the ability to cut down on pain.

When a PT uses this treatment modality, the therapist attaches an e-stim device to the injured area of your body.

There are two main types of e-stim devices. They include:

  • TENS. Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) uses low voltage electrical current to provide pain relief. It’s thought that the electrical impulses may help block pain receptors from being sent from your nerves to your brain.
  • NMES. Neuromuscular Electrical Stimulation (NMES) uses a device that sends electrical impulses to nerves. This causes your muscles to contract. It’s thought that the repeated muscle contractions can improve blood flow and help repair injured muscles.


Traction takes the pressure off compressed or damaged joints. It can be conducted with a piece of equipment or with the therapist’s hands, and is considered helpful for people with:

  • neck pain
  • lower back pain
  • degenerative disc conditions in the spine