Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only. Please speak with a medical professional before seeking treatment.

What can physical therapy help with?

Brain injury, spinal cord injury, physical injury, and/or pain

What is physical therapy?

Physical therapy involves working with a physical therapist to regain physical abilities you may have lost as a result of your injury. Brain injury can cause a wide variety of physical challenges, from losing the ability to walk to visual issues. Physical therapy might include exercises, stretching, learning how to use assistive devices, help with balance, aquatic therapy, and even video games.

What is physical therapy like?

Physical therapy can take place in a number of locations such as a hospital, a rehabilitation clinic, a doctor's office, a physical therapist’s office, or even in your home. The first step is evaluation to see where you need improvement and which parts of your body have been affected by your injury. The next step is creating a treatment plan that includes goals to work towards and a timeline of rehabilitation. The hands-on nature of the therapy will vary based on the severity of your injury.

If you lost feeling or movement in part of your body as a result of your injury, your physical therapist may spend time stretching out your limbs to help improve your range of motion, reduce pain and prevent muscle tightness. Electrical stimulation, heat or cold therapies, and massage may be used to help regain movement and sensation in affected limbs. PT activities also aim to increase motor strength, coordination and balance. This may involve engaging in exercises with or without the use of equipment (elastic bands, weights, a treadmill, a stationary bike etc). Yoga may also be integrated as part of your physical therapy program as it can help improve posture, balance, flexibility, body awareness and control. Teaching you to use assistive or adaptive devices (prosthesis, brace, wheelchair, walker, cane, etc.), can help you move around more easily and independently even if you still have problems moving on your own.

Sometimes physical therapy can be painful, but an experienced therapist will help you to know what pain is productive and what pain is damaging. As with any physical exercise, to some extent the old adage, “no pain no gain” holds true. But with repeated practice of exercises, you will develop greater strength and endurance which help lessen the pain. Yoga’s focus on breathing may also be helpful in working through pain during treatment. Some treatment plans may even include exercises you can do at your home, between visits to the physical therapist. Finally, your therapist should provide a post-treatment evaluation to see how you have progressed or if you might need more therapy.

Why does physical therapy work?

Physical therapy works because it helps you restore or regain function and strength lost due to injury. Some brain injury affects the motor neurons, the part of your brain that controls your muscles. If your muscles do not move, they become stiff and weak or even atrophy. Physical therapy would teach you techniques and exercises to re-learn how to use your muscles and regain movement. With a different type of brain injury, you might feel dizzy or clumsy. You may have also lost some limb function due to injury. Physical therapy can improve your coordination, balance, strength, energy, and physical independence.

In some cases, training with devices compensates for motor problems that may not improve. Especially if you have sustained a spinal cord injury on top of brain injury, or if you lost a limb, or have permanent loss of use of a limb. Physical therapy will help you learn how to use adaptive strategies and equipment so that you can regain independence despite your injuries.

Physical therapy also increases blood flow to your body, stretches ligaments, and reduces inflammation, all which promote healing. In addition to greater ease of mobility, physical exercise releases endorphins. Movement, especially after brain injury, helps with brain plasticity and overall wellness.

How strong is the evidence for physical therapy use with brain injury?

Physical therapy is effective at treating many symptoms of brain injury. According to this 2016 study, “Physical therapy plays an important role in the recovery of impaired functions, during which the patient’s functional status is assessed and appropriate methods and measures are tailored to individual patients.” Additionally, the American Physical Therapy Association published a report in April of 2020, outlining the strength of the scientific evidence behind treatment of mild traumatic brain injury symptoms. They reported that many common treatments for motor, balance, and movement impairments had moderate-to-strong scientific evidence supporting their use. Another recent international study found that physical therapy was also effective when combined with other treatments, such as neurostimulation (a way of stimulating nerves to treat chronic pain). In this study, combined treatment also led to improved balance and gait, as well as reduction in headaches, and improvement of sleep quality in patients with chronic movement disorders who had plateaued in regular physical therapy.

The evidence is strong that physical exercise improves motor abilities, cognitive abilities, neuroplasticity, and enhances mood. In people experiencing chronic symptoms due to their brain injury, physical exercise has been linked to global increases in cognitive function.

What makes for effective physical therapy?

Look for a licensed physical therapist or doctor of physical therapy (called a D.PT) with specialized training and an extensive background in working with individuals with brain injuries. Some may use the designation NCS, which stands for Neurologic Clinical Specialist. Some physical therapists without the NCS credential might still be experienced in treating people with brain injury and have the credential of Certified Brain Injury Specialist (CBIS), from the Brain Injury Association of America.

What do patients say?

... I went from flat on my back to wheelchair, to crutches, to walking with a cane. I spent two one-hour sessions a day in rehab where the therapy focused on exercises such as weight lifting, pull-ups, push-ups, and walking with supervision. Once every session, a corpsman would place a huge belt with a handle on the back around my waist. He would then grasp the handle with one hand and let me walk through the halls. If I stumbled, he could prevent me from falling. We called it "walking the dog." I literally learned to walk all over again. My stay at Travis taught me that the person in control of my physical recovery (as much as, or more than, my doctors, nurses, and therapists) was me. They could provide me with a means, but I had to have a positive attitude and the motivation to succeed. I made use of therapy every moment I could. I did arm and leg exercises lying in my bed, I wheeled my chair all over the ward.”

— Robert L. Heriza, Veteran

What do experts say?

The traumatic brain injury (TBI) population is one of the most challenging that a physical therapist may encounter. Because of the multiple body systems affected by a brain injury and the strong likelihood of secondary impairments, a physical therapist must be proficient in a wide variety of examination procedures and intervention techniques. Owing to behavioral difficulties encountered during recovery, a PT working with the TBI population must also possess strong interpersonal skills, be able to react quickly and effectively to suddenly changing situations, and have keen observation skills.

— Payal Desai, LPT NDTC, from Rainbow Rehabilitation Centers

How Exercise Can Help Heal the Brain After a TBI (BrainLine)

Personal Stories

Where can I go to get this treatment? (limited list)


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Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only. Speak with a medical professional before seeking treatment.


Reviewed by Amy Shapiro-Rosenbaum, PhD, Cooper Hodges, PhD, Lyndsay Tkach, MA, CBIS, and Michelle Neary, March 2021.

The BrainLine Treatment Hub was created in consultation with TBI and PTSD experts.