If you’re experiencing pain, discomfort, or limitations in your physical movements, seeking help from a physical therapist may be the solution for you. While many people may think that only doctors can refer patients to physical therapy, this is not entirely true.
There are various key players involved in referring individuals to physical therapy, and understanding who they are can make a huge difference in your path to recovery. Whether you have been injured, recently underwent surgery, or suffer from a chronic condition affecting your mobility, physical therapy can offer tailored treatments to suit your needs.
“Physical therapy can provide long-term benefits by addressing physical dysfunctions, improving range-of-motion, reducing inflammation, relieving pain, and facilitating overall wellness.”
In this article, we will explore the different people who can refer to physical therapy and how each of them plays an important role in providing access to quality care. From primary care physicians to chiropractors and even self-referral, there are multiple paths to finding relief through physical therapy.
We’ll also discuss what to expect when working with a physical therapist, including initial evaluations, treatment options, and expected outcomes. By gaining insight into the process of physical therapy referral and treatment, you can feel confident in taking charge of your own health and well-being.
If you’re wondering whether physical therapy could benefit you, read on to discover the key players in your journey towards optimal physical function.
Primary Care Physicians
If you’re considering physical therapy for an injury or condition, you may wonder who can refer you to this treatment. Generally, primary care physicians are the first healthcare providers that patients consult for their medical needs and concerns. They might be your family doctor, internist, nurse practitioner, or physician assistant.
As a general rule, most states in the US require prescriptions from licensed healthcare providers before starting physical therapy sessions. Primary care physicians are usually authorized to make such referrals based on several factors, including:
- Your medical history and current health status;
- The nature, severity, and duration of your symptoms or pain;
- The results of tests or imaging studies that indicate the need for PT;
- The type and extent of interventions you have already tried to manage your condition, such as medications, rest, exercise, or injections;
- Your individual goals, preferences, and expectations from physical therapy; and
- Your insurance coverage and benefits regarding PT services.
“Physical therapists treat people across their lifespan — from newborns to the elderly — who have injuries, illnesses or other health conditions that limit their ability to move and perform functional activities.” -American Physical Therapy Association
In addition to addressing acute and chronic health problems, primary care physicians also play a crucial role in preventive medicine. This includes screenings, vaccinations, counseling, and education aimed at reducing the risk of diseases and promoting healthy lifestyles.
Preventive care is particularly relevant when it comes to musculoskeletal health and physical activity. Regular check-ups, consultations, and tests with your primary care provider can help you avoid injuries, detect early signs of joint problems or disorders (such as arthritis or osteoporosis), and develop personalized exercise plans that fit your age, fitness level, and health goals.
“It’s important to keep moving — even just a little — because physical activity is associated with lower mortality rates no matter what the size of people’s bodies.” -Dr. Robert E. Sallis, family physician at Kaiser Permanente in Fontana
Chronic Disease Management
If you have a chronic condition that affects your muscles, bones, joints, or mobility, such as fibromyalgia, back pain, or diabetes, your primary care physician can coordinate your care and refer you to specialists or supporting services if needed. This involves monitoring your symptoms, medications, lifestyle habits, and treatments over time and adjusting them based on your response and feedback.
In many cases, physical therapy can also be an effective part of chronic disease management, especially when combined with other interventions such as medicines, surgery, or counseling. PT can help reduce pain, increase flexibility and strength, improve balance and coordination, and enhance overall function and quality of life for people with diverse conditions and ages. That’s why it’s essential that you inform your primary care provider if you’re experiencing any persistent or worsening musculoskeletal problems that may benefit from physical therapy evaluation and treatment.
“Physical therapy is an essential step in helping patients regain their independence and optimize their physical function, regardless of underlying medical conditions” -Dr. Katie Kennedy, Physical therapist and certified clinical specialist in neurologic physical therapy at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center
Besides addressing specific health concerns, primary care physicians are also concerned with promoting general wellness and healthy behaviors among their patients. This includes providing advice, resources, and referrals related to nutrition, stress management, smoking cessation, and injury prevention.
Physical therapy can also support health promotion by integrating education, exercise, and lifestyle modifications into personalized treatment plans. By working closely with your PT, you can learn how to prevent future injuries, correct faulty movement patterns, adopt healthy postures and habits, and develop self-care strategies that enhance your physical and mental resilience.
“Physical therapists help people transform their lives by restoring mobility and achieving goals they never thought possible… Whether it’s a patient who was able to lift her arm for the first time in months or helped an adult with Parkinson’s disease walk without falling, as physical therapists we know what we do makes a difference in peoples’ lives.” -Dr. Sharon Dunn, Physical therapist and president of the American Physical Therapy Association
In some cases, your primary care doctor may suggest that you see a specialist as they might be more equipped to handle and diagnose certain conditions or issues. Here are a few specialists who can refer patients to physical therapy:
If you have heart problems like coronary artery disease or have recently had surgery, it is likely that your cardiologist will recommend physical therapy for you. Your therapist will teach you exercises that improve blood flow by strengthening the muscles involved in respiration while also reducing symptoms such as chest pain.
“Physical activity strengthens the heart muscle just like any other muscle in the body. It’s good news for people with heart disease who want something they can do.” -Dr. Randal Thomas, Mayo Clinic
Cancer treatments like chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery can all cause fatigue, pain, weakness, balance concerns, and various side effects. That’s why an oncologist usually recommends physical therapy as part of cancer treatment. Physical exercise stimulates circulation, decreases nausea and inflammation, and improves flexibility and strength.
“Exercise is one benefit-rich intervention within Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) aimed at offering increased quality of life during and after malignancy treatment.” -American Cancer Society
Conditions involving the nervous system, including Parkinson’s Disease, multiple sclerosis, and stroke rehabilitation, almost always involve a recommendation from neurologists about physical therapy treatments. It focuses heavily on motor function improvement through stretching, resistance training, and coordination and balance-retraining exercises under their close supervision of qualified professionals.
“Rehabilitation strategies are key undertakings in maintaining continuing improvements in neurorehabilitation, promoting functional recovery, improving mental health status and ultimately regulating a fulfilling daily life.” -Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation
Physical therapy is an integral part of healthcare, and there are many situations where it is recommended. It is generally advised to follow these suggestions from specialists as it can help in quicker recovery.
One of the key services provided by chiropractors is spinal adjustments. This involves the manipulation of the spine to correct misalignments, alleviate pain and improve overall function. Chiropractors may use a variety of techniques such as manual adjustments, activator methods, drop techniques or instrument assisted manipulation.
The goal of spinal adjustments is to restore proper alignment and motion to the spine, which can improve nerve function, reduce inflammation and promote healing throughout the body. Patients who receive regular chiropractic care often report improved range of motion, reduced pain and increased overall wellness.
“Research shows that chiropractic adjustments are an effective way to treat neck pain, back pain and other musculoskeletal conditions.” -American Chiropractic Association
Chiropractors provide natural, drug-free pain management for a variety of acute and chronic conditions. By utilizing techniques such as spinal adjustments, soft tissue mobilization, therapeutic exercise and nutritional counseling, chiropractors aim to reduce pain and improve function without relying on medication.
Chiropractors often work with patients who suffer from conditions such as headaches, neck pain, back pain, sciatica, carpal tunnel syndrome and more. By addressing the underlying cause of pain rather than simply masking symptoms with medication, chiropractors are able to help patients find sustainable relief and improve their quality of life.
“Research has shown chiropractic treatment to be a safe and effective option for managing low-back pain, neck pain, and headaches.” -National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health
Chiropractors also help patients improve posture through a combination of adjustment techniques, exercises and education. Poor posture can contribute to a variety of health problems including neck and back pain, headaches, reduced mobility and more.
Chiropractors work with patients to identify areas of weakness or imbalance in their musculoskeletal system, and then prescribe exercises and adjustments to address those issues. By improving posture, chiropractors can reduce the risk of future injuries and improve overall quality of life.
“Chiropractors treat a variety of conditions related to posture, including forward head posture (also known as ‘tech neck’), rounded shoulders, hunchback and more.” -The Joint ChiropracticOverall, chiropractors are an effective option for patients seeking natural, holistic care for a variety of musculoskeletal conditions. Whether you’re looking for pain relief, improved function or better posture, a chiropractor may be able to help you achieve your health goals without relying on medication or surgery.
Occupational therapists are skilled professionals who aim to improve patients’ ability to perform the everyday activities they need and want to do. They work with individuals of all ages who are experiencing physical, cognitive, or mental health problems that affect their ability to function independently.
Occupational therapists can work in a variety of settings including hospitals, clinics, schools, and private practices. They use evidence-based interventions such as assistive technology, cognitive therapy, hand therapy, and workplace ergonomics to help their patients achieve their goals.
“The goal of occupational therapy is to help people participate in daily life to the best of their abilities.” – American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA)
One way an occupational therapist may intervene is by incorporating assistive technology into their patient’s treatment plan. Assistive technology refers to any device, tool, or piece of equipment that helps people with disabilities or impairments perform everyday tasks. This could include anything from a wheelchair to a computer program that reads text out loud.
An occupational therapist will evaluate a patient’s needs and recommend appropriate assistive technology to help them overcome obstacles. For example, if a person has limited hand mobility due to arthritis, an occupational therapist might recommend using a special keyboard or voice recognition software to allow them to continue typing without pain.
“Assistive technology has become key to helping people with disabilities live independently and safely at home.” – National Institute on Aging (NIA)
Cognitive therapy is another intervention used by occupational therapists to help patients who may be struggling with memory, focus, or other cognitive issues. According to the AOTA, cognitive therapy uses various strategies to help people compensate for changes in their cognitive abilities.
For example, an occupational therapist might teach a patient how to use a journal or smartphone app to keep track of important dates and appointments. Or they may suggest using memory aides such as labels or post-it notes to remind the individual of specific tasks or items.
“Cognitive therapy helps people with impaired thinking skills learn strategies to cope with these difficulties so they can maintain independence.” – American Stroke Association (ASA)
Hand therapy is another specialized intervention provided by occupational therapists. This type of therapy focuses on improving hand and upper extremity function in patients who have experienced an injury or disability affecting this area. Hand therapy includes wound care, splinting, and range-of-motion exercises that help improve hand strength and dexterity.
Occupational therapists also provide education on proper body mechanics and ergonomics of the hands and arms to prevent future injuries or strain on the muscles and bones of the arm and hand.
“Hand therapy is essential for those who have suffered an injury to the hand or wrist to regain optimal functioning and assist them to return to work, leisure activities, and self-care routines.” -American Society of Hand Therapists (ASHT)
Finally, occupational therapists can apply workplace ergonomics to reduce the risk of musculoskeletal disorders and other problems associated with performing specific job duties. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), ergonomic interventions involve modifying the work environment to fit the worker rather than forcing the worker to adapt to the environment.
An occupational therapist will assess the worker’s body position, need for equipment, and overall physical workspace. They will then identify opportunities for improvement in order to create a safer and more comfortable working environment. For example, they may suggest the use of ergonomic chairs or keyboards to reduce back pain or carpal tunnel syndrome in office workers.
“Ergonomics is not just about making things comfortable and easy for employees – it’s also about optimizing performance.” -The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)
Occupational therapists are highly trained professionals who employ a wide range of evidence-based interventions to help patients regain independence and improve their quality of life. From assistive technology to workplace ergonomics, occupational therapy interventions are designed to meet the unique needs of each patient.
Speech-Language Pathologists (SLPs) are licensed healthcare professionals who specialize in the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of a wide range of communication disorders. These professionals work with individuals of all ages, from infants to senior citizens, who have difficulty communicating or swallowing.
SLPs play an important role in promoting language development in children. They can diagnose speech and language delays and provide therapy to help children improve their communication skills. SLPs may also work with children who have more severe language impairments, such as autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, or Down syndrome.
In addition to working with children, SLPs also work with adults who have experienced strokes, traumatic brain injuries, or other neurological disorders that affect language comprehension and production. Therapy provided by SLPs is tailored to each individual’s needs and goals, and may include exercises to improve memory, attention, and problem-solving skills.
SLPs also specialize in treating swallowing disorders, which can result from medical conditions or injury. Swallowing disorders can be life-threatening if left untreated, causing choking, aspiration pneumonia, malnutrition, and dehydration.
SLPs use a variety of techniques to treat swallowing disorders, including neuromuscular electrical stimulation, biofeedback, diet modifications, and swallow therapy exercises. These therapies aim to strengthen the muscles used during swallowing, promote safe swallowing, and prevent aspiration.
“A speech-language pathologist can help you restore your ability to communicate with ease and eat without fear.” -U.S. News & World Report
Referral to an SLP typically comes from a physician, but referrals may also come from caregivers, teachers, social workers, or other healthcare professionals who notice a speech or swallowing issue. It is important to seek early intervention for any communication or swallowing disorder, as prompt treatment can significantly improve outcomes.
If you or someone you know has difficulty speaking or swallowing, ask your healthcare provider about a referral to a Speech-Language Pathologist today.
Sports Coaches and Trainers
Sports coaches and trainers play a vital role in preventing injuries and helping athletes recover from them. They work closely with physical therapists to ensure that their athletes receive the best possible care.
Preventing injuries is one of the primary responsibilities of sports coaches and trainers. They do this by ensuring that athletes are using proper form and technique when performing exercises and activities. They also monitor athletes for signs of overuse or fatigue, which can lead to injuries if left untreated.
One important aspect of injury prevention is flexibility training. Sports coaches and trainers should encourage their athletes to engage in regular stretching routines, particularly before and after workouts or games. This helps to prepare the muscles and joints for activity and reduce the risk of strains or sprains.
Athletes who participate in contact sports, such as football or basketball, may require additional protective equipment to prevent injuries. Sports coaches and trainers should educate their athletes on how to properly use and maintain this equipment to ensure maximum protection.
“Injuries obviously aren’t completely avoidable in sports, but there are definitely ways to minimize the risk. Proper technique and conditioning can go a long way in keeping athletes healthy.” – Dr. David Geier, orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist
Strength training is an essential component of many athletic programs. It helps improve performance, prevent muscle imbalances, and reduce the risk of injury. Sports coaches and trainers must design strength-training programs that target specific areas of the body and take into account each athlete’s unique needs and goals.
The goal of strength training is not just to build muscle mass, but also to develop functional strength that translates to improved athletic performance. Exercises like squats, lunges, and bench presses are commonly used in strength-training programs, but sports coaches and trainers must also incorporate exercises that mimic the movements required in the athlete’s sport.
Sports coaches and trainers should also emphasize the importance of recovery after strength training. This includes taking rest days to allow the muscles to recover, as well as engaging in activities like foam rolling or stretching to aid in muscle recovery and reduce soreness.
“Strength training can be an incredibly effective tool for athletes, but it must be done safely and tailored to each individual’s needs. Sports coaches and trainers play a critical role in helping their athletes achieve their goals through proper strength training.” – Dr. Scott Weiss, physical therapist and athletic trainer
Sports coaches and trainers have an important role to play in referring their athletes to physical therapy. By working closely with physical therapists, they can prevent injuries before they occur, help athletes recover from injuries when they do happen, and develop comprehensive strength-training programs that enhance athletic performance.
Frequently Asked Questions
Who can refer patients to physical therapy?
Healthcare providers, such as physicians, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants, can refer patients to physical therapy. In some states, licensed physical therapists can also make referrals. Patients can also be referred by their employer or insurance company.
What types of healthcare providers can refer to physical therapy?
Physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and in some states, physical therapists can refer patients to physical therapy. Some insurance companies may also have specific requirements for who can refer patients to physical therapy.
Can a patient refer themselves to physical therapy or do they need a referral from a healthcare provider?
In some cases, patients may be able to refer themselves to physical therapy, depending on their insurance policy. However, many insurance plans require a referral from a healthcare provider in order to cover the cost of physical therapy.
Are there any specific criteria that must be met for a healthcare provider to refer a patient to physical therapy?
There are no specific criteria that must be met for a healthcare provider to refer a patient to physical therapy. However, the decision to refer a patient is usually based on the patient’s medical condition and their need for physical therapy.
Can a chiropractor refer a patient to physical therapy?
In some states, chiropractors are allowed to refer patients to physical therapy. However, this varies by state and by insurance policy. It is best to check with your healthcare provider or insurance company to determine who can refer you to physical therapy.