The use of physical techniques, such as exercise and massage, to restore or maintain mobility and function

Physiotherapy is used to restore muscle strength and flexibility and to improve physical mobility after surgery, injury, or illness. It may also be used to help a person with a long-term disorder, such as arthritis, to maintain normal use of the body. In addition, physiotherapy can help to relieve pain and prevent complications from developing following an operation or an illness.

Physiotherapy may be combined with other types of treatment, such as drugs and occupational therapy.

What does it involve?

The physiotherapist starts by taking a detailed medical history and evaluating your condition. Assessment may involve determining the strength and flexibility of your muscles, how well you are able to get in and out of bed, and whether you are able to walk unaided or need to use a walking aid or wheelchair. The physiotherapist draws up a treatment plan using one or more physiotherapy techniques. These may include exercise, heat and cold treatments, massage, hydrotherapy, electrical stimulation, ultrasound, and gait training. A form of therapy called chest physiotherapy may be used to prevent chest infections in people who are vulnerable because of illness or surgery.


Usually, the aim of exercise therapy is to strengthen weak muscles and increase flexibility. Exercise therapy is useful for anyone who has reduced movement in a limb. For example, this may occur after a person is confined to bed following knee surgery, after the limb has been immobilized to treat a fracture, or after a stroke. Anyone who has been confined to bed with a serious or long-term illness is likely to have lost muscle bulk and will also benefit from exercise. Your physiotherapist may show you exercises that you can do on your own, or, if you are unable to move a joint or limb, the physiotherapist may manipulate it to extend your range of movement. Equipment such as weights, treadmills, and exercise bicycles may be used in an exercise programme.

Heat and cold treatments

A physiotherapist often uses heat to treat muscle injuries and joint stiffness caused by excessive exercise or arthritis. The application of hot packs to the affected area stimulates blood flow, relaxes tense muscles, and relieves pain. Cold treatments using ice or cold packs may be used to reduce pain and swelling.


A physiotherapist uses his or her hands or specialized massage tools to knead muscles and stroke the body using circular or long, sweeping movements. Massage stimulates blood flow, which helps to reduce inflammation and relieve fluid retention. Massage techniques are also used by physiotherapists to promote relaxation, which in turn helps to relieve localized pain and muscle spasm.


This form of therapy usually takes place in a heated pool and uses water to support the body, making movements easier or providing resistance to motion during exercise. Gentle exercise can help to improve muscle strength, flexibility, and general fitness. Hydrotherapy is helpful if you are unable to bear weight on a limb because of injury or a disorder such as arthritis.

Electrical stimulation

In this type of therapy, a mild electric current is passed through pads applied to the surface of the skin to generate heat, which relieves stiffness and improves mobility in joints affected by injury or illness.


This form of therapy uses high-energy sound waves to create heat in the tissues, which helps to relieve pain and inflammation. This technique is often used to treat soft tissue injuries involving a ligament, tendon, or muscle and may be given in several sessions. A gel is applied to the skin, and an ultrasound probe is then placed on the skin and moved over the area being treated. After each session of ultrasound therapy, you may experience a slight tingling sensation in the affected area.

Gait training

This training is used to help a person to walk again after an injury or an illness such as a stroke or if the person has a long-term disability. Various techniques may be used, including strength training, electrical stimulation, biofeedback, and treadmill training.

Chest physiotherapy

This form of physiotherapy is used to manage breathlessness in people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and to help prevent chest infections in people who have had major surgery or who have an illness that prevents them from clearing their lungs. In particular, elderly people who have had a major operation and children with the inherited disorder cystic fibrosis may accumulate mucus in their lungs, which may cause infections. You may be shown breathing and coughing exercises that help to expand the chest and fill the lungs with air. Some techniques involve lying in a position that allows mucus to drain from the lungs while the chest is tapped with cupped hands (see Chest physiotherapy). If your child needs regular chest physiotherapy, you may be taught to use these techniques at home.

What can I expect?

You may need only a brief course of physiotherapy after a minor injury, but long-term therapy may be required after a major injury or illness. Physiotherapy helps to slow the progression of long-term disorders, such as cystic fibrosis, and reduce complications.

Technique: Chest Physiotherapy

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

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