Health A to Z
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.
Physiotherapy can be helpful for people of all ages with a wide range of health conditions, including problems affecting the:
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:
Some physiotherapists can also offer home visits.
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:
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.
Physiotherapy is available through the NHS or privately.
You may need a referral from your GP 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 GP 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.
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:
Sometimes other techniques, such as acupuncture or ultrasound treatment, may also be tried.
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.
Physiotherapists usually recommend movement and exercise to help improve your mobility and function. This may include:
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.
Manual therapy is a technique where a physiotherapist uses their hands to manipulate, mobilise and massage the body tissues.
This can help:
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:
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.
If you need physiotherapy a number of different options are available to you.
You can see a physiotherapist either:
Physiotherapy can also sometimes be accessed through occupational health services, charities, patient groups and the voluntary sector.
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 GP 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.
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 GP 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.
Some physiotherapists also work in GP 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 GP, you may be offered to see the physiotherapist directly, instead of having to see the GP 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:
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 GP 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.