Physical Therapy

Physical therapy (PT) is a healthcare discipline that uses various techniques and exercises to help individuals recover from physical injuries, manage chronic conditions, or improve overall physical function. Physical therapists work with patients to improve mobility, reduce pain, increase strength and flexibility, and restore normal movements and activities.

Physical therapy may also involve the use of equipment and technologies such as heat and cold therapy, and electrical stimulation to help manage symptoms and improve physical performance. 

How does physical therapy help spine pain?

Physical therapy can be used to treat spine pain through a variety of techniques, including:

  1. Stretching and Strengthening exercises: to help improve flexibility and build strength in the muscles supporting the spine, reducing stress and strain on the spine.
  2. Manual Therapy: techniques such as spinal manipulation and massage to help relieve tension and discomfort in the affected area.
  3. Pain management techniques: including heat or cold therapy, electrical stimulation, and other modalities to help reduce pain and promote healing.

Physical therapy is often combined with other treatments such as medications and lifestyle modifications to provide comprehensive pain relief and improved functional ability.

What types of equipment may be using during PT?

Physical therapists will often use different types of equipment during the session to build strength, promote flexibility, and relieve pain. Some examples include:

  • Exercise balls – Used for balance training, core strengthening exercises, and to improve posture.
  • Resistance bands – Used for stretching, strengthening and rehabilitation exercises.
  • Foam rollers – Used for self-massage, to release muscle tension and improve flexibility.
  • Weighted bars – Used for resistance training, to improve strength and stability in the back.
  • Stability discs – Used for balance training, to improve stability and coordination.
  • TENS unitsTranscutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation units that use electrical impulses to relieve pain.
  • Traction machines – Used to stretch and decompress the spine, to relieve pressure on nerve roots and to reduce pain.
  • Hot/cold packs – Used to reduce inflammation and pain, improve circulation and promote healing.
  • Massage balls – Used for self-massage, to release muscle tension and improve flexibility.
  • Kinesiology tape – Used to support and stabilize joints, reduce pain and swelling, and promote proper healing and alignment.

It’s important to note that not every physical therapist uses all of these tools and the specific tools used may vary based on the individual patient’s needs and goals.

How many sessions are needed to see results?

In general, physical therapy for spine pain can take several weeks to several months to achieve noticeable improvement, and some patients may require ongoing treatment to manage their symptoms.

The number of physical therapy sessions needed to achieve improvement for spine pain can vary depending on several factors, including the severity and duration of the pain, the underlying cause of the pain, and the individual’s overall health and response to treatment.

Is physical therapy effective?

Overall, physical therapy can be an effective treatment option for many patients with spine pain. Many studies have shown significant improvement in certain conditions, such as chronic low back pain

Furthermore the North American Spine Society (NASS) recommends the use of physical therapy for treatment of low back pain, based on its review of the medical literature.  

Is physical therapy covered by insurance?

In the United States, most insurance plans, including Medicare and Medicaid, provide coverage for physical therapy. However, the extent of coverage can vary based on factors such as the type of insurance policy, the specific condition being treated, and the individual’s treatment plan.

It’s important to check with the patient’s insurance company to determine the extent of coverage for physical therapy and any out-of-pocket costs that may be required, such as co-payments or deductibles. Some insurance policies may require a referral from a physician or have a limit on the number of physical therapy visits that are covered.


Hayden, Jill A et al. “Exercise therapy for chronic low back pain.” The Cochrane database of systematic reviews vol. 9,9 CD009790. 28 Sep. 2021, doi:10.1002/14651858.CD009790.pub2

Kreiner, D Scott et al. “Guideline summary review: an evidence-based clinical guideline for the diagnosis and treatment of low back pain.” The spine journal : official journal of the North American Spine Society vol. 20,7 (2020): 998-1024. doi:10.1016/j.spinee.2020.04.006

About the Author

Dave Harrison, MD

Dr. Harrison is a board certified Emergency Physician with a part time appointment at San Francisco General Medical Center and is an Assistant Clinical Professor-Volunteer at the UCSF School of Medicine. Dr. Harrison attended medical school at Tufts University and completed his Emergency Medicine residency at the University of Southern California. Dr. Harrison manages the editorial process for