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It’s a common and sensible enough question: “What exactly is the difference between physical rehabilitation and physical therapy?” And the answer is actually fairly simple: physical therapy is a part of rehabilitation. The terms are often used interchangeably by regulated government departments, such as the National Institutes for Health, or NIH. Essentially, physical therapy is one aspect that fits under the larger umbrella of rehabilitation.

The NIH’s definition of rehabilitation, also called rehab, is as follows: “Rehabilitation often focuses on:

  • Physical therapy [emphasis added] to help your strength, mobility and fitness.
  • Occupational therapy to help you with your daily activities.
  • Speech-language therapy to help with speaking, understanding, reading, writing and swallowing.
  • Treatment of pain.”

Performed by health care professionals, including chiropractors—experts who have specialized knowledge of treating injuries and conditions of the human musculoskeletal system—physical therapy aims to correct impairments and functional limitations caused by a patient’s injuries or physical condition. Physical therapy also endeavors to improve a person’s movement, functional ability, well-being, and overall quality of life. A physical therapist must be licensed to evaluate and treat impairments and functional limitations in patients. They often work closely with physical therapist assistants, who are licensed to perform other rehabilitation treatments. Physical therapists can also specialize in specific divisions of physical therapy such as orthopedics, pediatrics, wound care, cardiac rehabilitation, lymphedema, and women’s health.

Physical therapy treatments often consist of manual therapy methods to improve the alignment and flexibility of a patient’s bones and soft tissues to reduce pain and increase function. Physical therapy also integrates stretching, therapeutic exercise, balance training, functional mobility training, gait training, and caregiver training. They are also qualified to recommend suitable medical and assistive devices for patients such as shower chairs, braces, walkers, canes, wheelchairs, and standers. Physical therapists also disseminate important education to a patient about their condition, injury prevention, proper body mechanics, suitable recreational activities, and overall health. To guarantee continued progress, a physical therapist will often custom-create an individualized home exercise program for the patient to follow.

Additionally, a physical therapist can help patients move in an effective, less painful way—letting them lead a more active lifestyle. With the supervision of rehabilitation by a physical therapist, the patient can undertake or continue an exercise program that would be most advantageous for them, whether it be walking, swimming, cycling, dancing, golfing, or another healthful activity they enjoy.

Physical therapy services are available in multiple settings including the hospital, rehab hospital, nursing home, outpatient clinic, adult medical day care, and at home. In the hospital, rehab hospital, or long-term care facility, most treatment sessions take place either in a hospital room or “therapy gym.” The objective of physical therapy in these locations is usually to increase physical ability so that the patient is able to safely return home with assistance. For example, the patient may perform exercises lying down in bed or on a padded mat table to improve the ability to get in and out of bed while at home. Performing exercises with weights while sitting increases a patient’s strength and ability to get out of a chair, while exercises with weights while standing improve strength, stability, and capacity to walk. Very often, “parallel bars” are utilized to provide balance for both hands as the patient practices walking.


While there are a number of medical professionals who can perform physical therapy as a part of a general rehabilitation, it can be argued that chiropractors are the most qualified to help a patient with musculoskeletal issues, and they can also provide personalized treatment in a private setting, instead of a busy hospital rehab center. If you or a loved one requires physical therapy, consider contacting a local chiropractor to learn about your options for high-quality care.

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