Physical Therapy for Seniors

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For seniors recovering from injury or illness and for those experiencing chronic pain, physical therapy can help relieve pain and restore physical functions such as flexibility, strength, balance and coordination.

Elderly physical therapy combines a combination of approaches including stretching, walking, massage, hydrotherapy, and electrical stimulation among others.

The goal of physical therapy for seniors is to make daily tasks and activities easier. And to make seniors as independent as possible.

Among the circumstances where physical therapy can be valuable are for those:

  • Recovering from injuries such as a broken hip
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Pain in all parts of the body such as knee, back, shoulder, wrist, etc.
  • Diabetes
  • Parkinson's Disease
  • Alzheimer's Disease
  • Stroke
  • Vertigo
  • Incontinence
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Cerebral Palsy
  • And many other conditions

What Does a Physical Therapist Do?

Physical Therapists (PTs) diagnose and treat everyone from newborns to seniors who have medical problems or health-related issues. PTs develop a plan using a variety of treatment techniques to increase a person's movement, reduce pain, and restore function.

The first goal is to reduce pain and swelling if there is any. Then, a PT will apply various techniques to increase flexibility, strength, coordination and balance. These techniques usually involve exercise such as stretching, lifting weights and walking. For more senior exercise ideas, see Active Senior Living.

PTs can also combine an assortment of other therapies, some that may help, and others that may not. It's often a trial and error process.

Types of Physical Therapy

Manual Therapy is therapy performed by the hands of the therapist with the goal of relaxing the patient, reducing pain, and providing more flexibility. It includes:

  • Massaging muscles and the body's soft tissues to relax the patient, improve circulation and relieve pain.
  • Mobilization uses slow movements to twist, pull and pull joints and bones into place. This can help to loosen tight joint tissues and increase flexibility.
  • Manipulation uses fast, forceful movements to relieve pain and re-align joints and bones.

Cold Therapy is used to relieve pain, swelling and inflammation from conditions such as arthritis. Treatment involves ice packs (15 to 20 minute sessions), ice massage, and rest, ice, compression and elevation (RICE).

Heat Therapy relaxes muscles and improves blood circulation, which is useful for loosening stiff joints from osteoarthritis or other conditions where you've been immobilized. Heat is also used to loosen muscles before exercise.

Hydrotherapy uses water to treat diseases and to maintain health, healing soft tissues, increasing blood flow, and relaxing the entire body.

Electrical stimulation uses electrical current to create a desired effect in the body. For instance, electrical current can scramble pain signals to cover feelings of pain. Electrical stimulation is used to contract muscles in stroke victims and those with arthritis.

Electrical stimulation is the general term that describes the use of electrical current to create an effect in the body. There are several uses for electrical stimulation. Electrical stimulation therapy is often used in conjuction with cold laser therapy to provide better healing.

Physical Therapists educate patients in every session. Patients are taught how to perform daily tasks, protect their body from re-injury, perform exercises at home, and how to make their homes a safer place.

Ultrasound uses high-pitched sound waves to reduce muscle spasms and relax the muscles before and after exercise.

Treating Specific Conditions with Physical Therapy

The medical community is finding that physical therapy can be used to help patients with a variety of diseases and medical conditions—some obvious, some less so.
Most people 65 and over have some arthritis in their spine, even if they don't have the symptoms. Physical therapy can help offset future symptoms by using aquatic exercises, hot packs, electrical stimulation and other techniques.

  • For stroke patients, PTs use constraint-induced movement therapy, where you are forced (your good limb is restrained) to use your weaker arm or hand. Motor imagery and mental practice involves rehearsing movements without actually doing it. This stimulates that part of your brain that controls movement.
  • Parkinson's disease patients perform exercises that improve trunk flexibility to avoid the robotic movements the disease produces.
  • Incontinence patients are taught how to find the right muscles and use them correctly. Doing pelvic exercises helps strengthen muscles to better control the bladder.
  • PTs work Alzheimer's patients using exercise, which can improve memory and delay the onset of more serious memory problems. They also use “mirroring” where the PT serves as a mirror, showing the patient how to move. Other techniques include dancing and gardening, which help patients remember certain types of movements.
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which causes difficulty breathing, is addressed with exercise training that can improve shortness of breath by training muscles and increasing aerobic capacity.


As you can see, physical therapy can help seniors in about every area of health care imaginable. If you're recovering from surgery or an illness or living with a disease, ask your doctor about physical therapy. PT can give you back your independence by increasing your mobility and making daily tasks easier.

To find out ways to stay even more mobile, read Assistive Technology Devices.

Physical Therapists can be given to seniors in a wide variety of living situations including:

Written By:
Jeff Hoyt
Editor in Chief
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