What is physiotherapy?
Physiotherapy helps to restore movement and function when someone is affected by injury, illness or disability. It can also help to reduce your risk of injury or illness in the future.
It takes a holistic approach that involves the patient directly in their own care.
When is physiotherapy used?
Physiotherapy can be helpful for people of all ages with a wide range of health conditions, including problems affecting the:
- bones, joints and soft tissue – such as back pain , neck pain , shoulder pain and sports injuries
- brain or nervous system – such as movement problems resulting from a stroke , multiple sclerosis (MS) or Parkinson's disease
- heart and circulation – such as rehabilitation after a heart attack
- lungs and breathing – such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and cystic fibrosis
Physiotherapy can improve your physical activity while helping you to prevent further injuries.
Physiotherapy is provided by specially-trained and regulated practitioners called physiotherapists.
Physiotherapists often work as part of a multi-disciplinary team in various areas of medicine and settings, including:
- community health centres or clinics
- some doctor surgeries
- some sports teams, clubs, charities and workplaces
Some physiotherapists can also offer home visits.
What physiotherapists do
Physiotherapists consider the body as a whole, rather than just focusing on the individual aspects of an injury or illness.
Some of the main approaches used by physiotherapists include:
- education and advice – physiotherapists can give general advice about things that can affect your daily lives, such as posture and correct lifting or carrying techniques to help prevent injuries
- movement, tailored exercise and physical activity advice – exercises may be recommended to improve your general health and mobility, and to strengthen specific parts of your body
- manual therapy – where the physiotherapist uses their hands to help relieve pain and stiffness, and to encourage better movement of the body
There are other techniques that may sometimes be used, such as exercises carried out in water (hydrotherapy or aquatic therapy) or acupuncture .
Read more about the main physiotherapy techniques .
Finding a physiotherapist
Physiotherapy is available through the NHS or privately.
You may need a referral from your doctor to have physiotherapy on the NHS, although in some areas it's possible to refer yourself directly.
To find out whether self-referral is available in your area, ask the reception staff at your doctor surgery or contact your local NHS Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) or trust.
Waiting lists for NHS treatment can be long and some people choose to pay for private treatment . Most private physiotherapists accept direct self-referrals.
Read more about accessing physiotherapy .
How to access physiotherapy
If you need physiotherapy a number of different options are available to you.
You can see a physiotherapist either:
- through the NHS – either by getting a referral from a doctor, by contacting a physiotherapist directly ( self-referral ) or at your doctor surgery ( direct access )
Physiotherapy can also sometimes be accessed through occupational health services, charities, patient groups and the voluntary sector.
Physiotherapy on the NHS
Physiotherapy is available free of charge on the NHS throughout the UK.
Depending on where you live, you may be able to self-refer (see below) or you may need to visit your doctor or consultant first. After discussing your symptoms with your doctor, they may then refer you to a physiotherapist.
You can search for physiotherapy services near you to find out where you may be referred to.
Self-referral for NHS physiotherapy
Some areas in the UK offer a self-referral service, which means you can make an appointment to see an NHS physiotherapist without having to see a doctor first.
However, this isn't available everywhere. Staff at your doctor surgery or your local NHS Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) or trust should be able to tell you whether it's available in your area.
Self-referral is particularly suitable for people with relatively simple conditions such as joint pain , strains or other injuries.
Direct access to physiotherapy
Some physiotherapists also work in doctor practices as the first point of contact for patients with musculoskeletal problems, such as neck and back pain, and those with long-term conditions, such as MS or stroke.
When contacting your doctor, you may be offered to see the physiotherapist directly, instead of having to see the doctor first.
Physiotherapists working in these roles may have advanced skills, such as prescribing and ordering scans.
Waiting lists for NHS physiotherapy can be long and some people choose to have private treatment instead. If you see a physiotherapist privately, you'll have to pay for treatment.
You can usually approach a private physiotherapist directly without a referral from a doctor.
When choosing a private physiotherapist, make sure they're:
- a fully qualified member of a recognised professional body, such as the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP)
- registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC)
You can find a private chartered physiotherapist near you using CSP's Physio2u directory. You can also use the Find a physio search facility on the Physio First website.
Occupational health services
Physiotherapy may be available through your workplace.
Some companies provide occupational health services, which include physiotherapy treatment. Check with your manager or Human Resources department to see if it's available where you work.
If you are currently employed, but off work due to ill health and likely to be off for four weeks or more, your doctor can refer you to a government service called Fit for Work for help and advice. If you have already been off work for four weeks, your employer can also refer you.
Physiotherapy techniques and approaches
Physiotherapy can involve a number of different treatment and preventative approaches, depending on the specific problems you're experiencing.
As your first appointment, you will have an assessment to help determine what help you might need.
Three of the main approaches a physiotherapist may use are:
- education and advice
- movement and exercise
- manual therapy
Sometimes other techniques, such as acupuncture or ultrasound treatment, may also be tried.
Education and advice
One of the main aspects of physiotherapy involves looking at the body as a whole, rather than focusing on the individual factors of an injury.
Therefore, giving general advice about ways to improve your wellbeing – for example, by taking regular exercise and maintaining a healthy weight for your height and build – is an important part of treatment.
A physiotherapist can also give you specific advice that you can apply to everyday activities to look after yourself and reduce your risk of pain or injury.
For example, if you have back pain , you may be given advice about good posture, correct lifting or carrying techniques, and avoiding awkward twisting, over-stretching or prolonged standing.
Movement and exercise
Physiotherapists usually recommend movement and exercise to help improve your mobility and function. This may include:
- exercises designed to improve movement and strength in a specific part of the body – these usually need to be repeated regularly for a set length of time
- activities that involve moving your whole body , such as walking or swimming – these can help if you're recovering from an operation or injury that affects your mobility
- exercises carried out in warm, shallow water (hydrotherapy or aquatic therapy) – the water can help relax and support the muscles and joints, while providing resistance to help you gradually strengthen
- advice and exercises to help you increase or maintain your physical activity – advice will be given on the importance of keeping active, and how to do this in a safe, effective way
- providing mobility aids – such as crutches or a walking stick to help you move around
Your physiotherapist may also recommend exercises that you can continue doing to help you manage pain in the long term or reduce your risk of injuring yourself again.
You can find exercise advice leaflets for some common problems, as well as exercises to prevent falls, on the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP) website.
Manual therapy is a technique where a physiotherapist uses their hands to manipulate, mobilise and massage the body tissues.
This can help:
- relieve pain and stiffness
- improve blood circulation
- help fluid drain more efficiently from parts of the body
- improve the movement of different parts of the body
- promote relaxation
Manual therapy can be used to treat specific problems, such as back pain, but may also be useful for a range of conditions that don't affect the bones, joints or muscles.
For example, massage may improve quality of life for some people with serious or long-term conditions by reducing levels of anxiety and improving sleep quality. Manual techniques are also used to help certain lung conditions.
Other techniques sometimes used by physiotherapists that may help to ease pain and promote healing include:
- acupuncture – where fine needles are inserted into specific points of the body, with the aim of reducing pain and promoting recovery
- transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) – a small, battery-operated device is used to deliver an electric current to the affected area, with the aim of relieving pain
- ultrasound – where high-frequency sound waves are used to treat deep tissue injuries by stimulating blood circulation and cell activity, with the aim of reducing pain and spasms, as well as speeding up healing
Some people have found these treatments effective, but there isn't much scientific evidence to support them.
There is some positive evidence for acupuncture, but the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) only recommends considering it for persistent lower back pain, chronic tension-type headaches and migraines .