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Side Effects of Physical Therapy

author image Melissa Sabo
Melissa Sabo is an occupational therapist who started writing professional guidebooks for all Flagship Rehabilitation employees in 2009. Specializing in applied therapy and exercise for non-medical readers, she also coauthored a manual on wheelchair positioning. She graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a Bachelor of Science in occupational therapy.
Side Effects of Physical Therapy
A physical therapist is working with an elderly patient. Photo Credit KatarzynaBialasiewicz/iStock/Getty Images

Physical therapy is a vital component of recovery after illness, injury or surgery. By using modalities such as electrical stimulation and ultrasound, a therapist can help alleviate your pain and promote healing. Exercise, ambulation, stair negotiation and balance activities compose the functional aspect of physical therapy and restore independence. However, your course of therapy might lead to a variety of side effects It's important to minimize these effects by addressing them during your course of therapy and contacting your physician as necessary.

Pain With Gain

One of the major side effects you are likely to experience in the course of therapy is pain. Your baseline pain may actually increase as you rehabilitate and recover, and this may lead to confusion and poor motivation to continue. It is essential to discuss these issues with your therapist and physician to determine if alternate treatment interventions would help alleviate pain and allow continued participation. To help control pain, your physician may recommend oral pain medication 30 minutes prior to a session. Heat, ice or topical treatments after a session, per your therapist's direction, may also reduce pain.


Swelling is another common side effect of physical therapy. As your therapist challenges your muscles, ligaments and tendons to strengthen them, your body may respond with increased edema, or swelling. The edema can cause additional pain and functional limitations. Speak with your therapist about treatments, such as using ice post-therapy or using hot and then cold to help control swelling, which can reduce pain and swelling and improve circulation simultaneously.

Lack of Outcome

As with any medical intervention, participation in physical therapy is no guarantee of recovery or complete resolution of symptoms. Because this can be discouraging, you may be tempted to discontinue your therapy. However, ending therapy prematurely will likely result in long-term pain and re-injury. It is important to stay the course. Talk with your therapist to discuss your personal goals, and be as specific as possible. Your therapist may be able to adjust the direction of treatment to target your specific goals or may educate you on lifestyle changes you can make to facilitate improved outcomes.

Pyscho-Emotional Issues

You may underestimate the psychological and emotional stress you will experience in conjunction with your therapy. Frequent appointments, pain, poor progress and lengthy time spent in therapy can tax your schedule. Discuss your issues with your family and friends, and ask for help with child care, meal preparation and transportation to allow you to focus on your therapy. Meet with an occupational counselor to guide you in transition if you are unable to return to work as a result of your injury or illness. Being proactive regarding the stresses and issues you face will allow you to take control of your situation and respond productively to the changes you are facing, both long-term and short-term.

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