Top 5 questions about physiotherapy answered

Many of us have heard of, or had, physiotherapy, but not many of us know what it actually is, what it does, or how many different types there are (spoiler: a lot!). Three Nuffield Health physiotherapists, Jodie Breach, Laura Stocks and Sharon Helsby, answer the 5 most common questions about physiotherapy:

1. What is physiotherapy and what does it do? 

Physiotherapy is a treatment that uses exercises and advice to help reduce pain, increase range of motion and improve strength. It involves a range of assessment techniques, objective examinations and evidence-based methods of treatment to restore function and movement by addressing deficiencies and disability. This is done without medication, surgery or invasive procedures. 

Physiotherapists rely upon up-to-date, evidence-based practice, which means that the assessment, examination and treatment have been thoroughly researched for their effectiveness in order to provide the best care possible. The various assessment techniques also ensure that treatment is bespoke and tailored to your needs; also known as: ‘patient-centred care’. 

Physiotherapists also work with patients to set realistic goals to ensure sustainable progress throughout the treatment process. To put it simply, it’s a practice that is very much designed to support your needs and requirements, in order to get you feeling the best.

2. What are the different types of physiotherapy? 

There are a number of different types of physiotherapy and each one does something slightly different:

  • Musculoskeletal (MSK) physiotherapy: This type of physiotherapy focuses on muscles, joints and bones. Patients will usually be referred to a MSK physiotherapist if they are struggling with something like back pain or shoulder pain. 
  • Sports physiotherapy: This is a specific part of physiotherapy where assessment and treatment are based around a sport. This will often mean that the goal of physiotherapy is to restore a high level of function to return a sportsperson to training and competition. Sports physiotherapy uses much of the same methods of treatment as MSK physiotherapy, but they will often work alongside other professionals, such as sport and exercise medics, to help facilitate a full recovery.
  • Respiratory physiotherapy: This physiotherapy option helps patients with breathing. It’s usually found in an inpatient setting, but can also be in the community. Respiratory physiotherapists use a variety of treatment methods including exercises, adjuncts and mobility to help improve the health of the patient.
  • Neuro physiotherapy: This is physiotherapy that helps with anything to do with the nervous system. For example, if you've had a stroke, neuro physiotherapists will help you to regain or maintain function.
  • Hands-on physiotherapy: This is where the physiotherapist uses various types of treatment methods to help facilitate a change in a muscle or a joint. This could be massage or manipulation. This works best when used in conjunction with exercises.
  • Exercise physiotherapy: Exercises are an essential part of physiotherapy. Exercise physiotherapy is where your physiotherapist can create a bespoke program to target areas of deficiency and help you make graded improvement. Exercises are usually challenging but achievable. Your physiotherapist will review your exercises over the course of your treatment until all your goals have been met.
  • Aqua physiotherapy: Also known as aqua therapy, this is where the physiotherapist will use a swimming pool that is usually at a higher temperature than normal to facilitate your rehabilitation. Water has lots of amazing properties that can either make an exercise easier or harder and this can help in progressing your rehabilitation and recovery. Your physiotherapist will guide you through the process and ensure that you are safe and comfortable at all times.
  • Cardiac rehabilitation: Cardiac rehabilitation is a customised outpatient program of exercise and education. The program is designed to help patients improve their health and get back to as full a life as possible after a cardiac event or for patients diagnosed with heart disease. The physiotherapist works alongside a multi-disciplinary team to deliver this service.
  • Osteopathy/chiropractic treatment: MSK physiotherapists, osteopaths and chiropractors are all musculoskeletal practitioners who aim to help you get back to what you love to do and reduce pain to improve your general wellbeing in the long term. However, they approach physical wellbeing from different perspectives and will use different techniques. Osteopathy and chiropractic treatment tends to be more based on manual treatments than physiotherapy, which may use manual therapy, but within a wider treatment plan of education, exercises and empowering you to manage your own condition with confidence. Chiropractic treatment specifically tends to focus on the spine and is associated with back and neck manipulations.
  • Occupational therapy: Occupational therapy is a separate profession to physiotherapy, but the roles complement each other when looking after patients. Occupational therapists treat injured, ill or disabled patients with therapeutic methods of treatment that replicate everyday life. 
  • Orthopaedic physiotherapy: Orthopaedic physiotherapy specialises in the assessment and treatment of bones and joints. An orthopaedic physiotherapist will look after patients that have broken bones, or have had surgery such as total hip replacements or knee replacements, to ensure they make a good recovery. 
  • Women's health physiotherapy: Women's health physiotherapy can help with issues such as incontinence, pelvic organ prolapse, pelvic pain, bladder/bowel/pelvic floor dysfunction and pregnancy-related musculoskeletal problems. 
  • Men's health physiotherapy: Men's health physiotherapy covers a range of conditions including erectile or other sexual dysfunction, incontinence, overactive bladder, bowel dysfunction and pelvic pain.

3. How long does physiotherapy take to work?

It usually takes 4–⁠6 weeks, but can take longer depending on the condition and deficits. Physiotherapy works over a period of time to create sustainable and meaningful changes to ensure that a patient can self-manage their condition.

Physiotherapy is progressive and is often directly linked to the compliance of the patient. Your physiotherapist should always keep you updated with how your sessions are going, but it’s also important to monitor, document and communicate how you’re feeling or any changes you’re experiencing between sessions.

4. What to wear to a physio appointment?

You'll need to be able to move around comfortably in your physiotherapy appointment, so wear something comfortable – sports clothing or gym kit is ideal.

Remember that your physiotherapist may need to see the affected area, so try and wear something that you feel comfortable removing or moving for ease of access. Your physiotherapist will make sure you are comfortable at all times. 

5. Can you have physio when pregnant?

Yes, you're welcome to physiotherapy at any time during your pregnancy. If you're attending due to a pregnancy-related issue, it would be worth mentioning this at the time of your booking so that a specialist physiotherapist can be booked, if available. 

Further help and support

Read our Physiotherapy FAQs for more answers to common questions about physiotherapy.

If you're having issues you think would benefit from physiotherapy, you can find your closest physiotherapist and book an appointment here.

Last updated Wednesday 29 March 2023

First published on Wednesday 7 September 2022