Physical therapy (PT) patients often receive massage therapy (also known as manual therapy) as part of their treatment plan. PT massage is different from a regular spa massage, which typically provides relief from muscle pain and tension. PT massage is focused on rehabilitating muscle and joint strength, mobility, and function.
Integrating PT massage therapy into a session optimizes treatment and may speed recovery. The hands-on approach is applied to a specific region of the body and is only used when needed to optimize treatment.
Read on to learn more about different types of physical therapists and the massage techniques they use.
Benefits of Hands-On Therapy
Hands-on physical therapy massage offers both physical and emotional benefits to individuals recovering from injury or surgery.
Physical therapists create individualized treatment programs to restore the function and strength in affected muscles and joints. In many cases, massage is used as part of someone’s treatment.
PT massage has proven physical benefits. In addition to providing muscle relaxation and pain relief, massage therapy can:
- Strengthen the immune system: Studies have shown that regular massage therapy can strengthen the immune system by boosting the number of white blood cells in the body, which helps to increase immune function.
- Improve circulation: Research has suggested that massage therapy improves blood flow throughout the body, particularly in the massaged areas, which may contribute to alleviating sore muscles.
- Improve posture, flexibility, and range of motion: Massage can significantly improve the range of motion of targeted muscles and joints, while also improving a person’s posture and flexibility.
- Boost mood: Massage reduces stress and stress hormone levels to improve a person’s sense of emotional well-being. Studies have found that getting a massage increases serotonin levels in the body, which may help reduce pain and depression.
Other Types of Physical Therapy
As with other types of medical professionals, there are a number of specialty areas in the field of physical therapy. The most common specialty areas in physical therapy include:
- Orthopedic physical therapy: Orthopedic physical therapists specialize in caring for the musculoskeletal system, which includes the bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons, joints, and connective tissues. They are trained to treat arthritis, amputations, post-operative joints, and sports injuries, as well as other conditions and injuries.
- Geriatric physical therapy: Geriatric physical therapists work with older adults to reduce pain, restore mobility, and increase strength. Geriatric physical therapy can help treat some of the most common conditions that older adults face, including arthritis, osteoporosis, incontinence, hip and joint replacement, and more.
- Neurological physical therapy: Neurological physical therapy can help people manage and treat the symptoms of neurological conditions and nervous system damage. Neurological physical therapists help patients improve their mobility, balance, and walking, as well as help them gain independence in their day-to-day functioning.
- Cardiovascular and pulmonary rehabilitation: Cardiovascular and pulmonary rehabilitation physical therapists work with patients with cardiopulmonary disorders, those who have had heart attacks and strokes, and people who are recovering from cardiac/pulmonary surgery. This type of therapy aims to increase a patient’s functional independence and endurance by strengthening their heart and lungs.
- Pediatric physical therapy: Pediatric physical therapy helps children with developmental delays and chronic health conditions, as well as supports recovery from traumatic injury or surgery. Pediatric physical therapists focus on improving a child’s balance and coordination, gross and fine motor skills, strength, and endurance.
Physical Therapy Massage Techniques
A number of physical therapy massage techniques improve strength, mobility, and function. Examples include:
- Active release technique (ART): ART combines manipulation and movement to relieve tension in the soft tissues (muscles, tendons) in the body. The physical therapist will identify, isolate, and target the affected area on the body to break up scar tissue to provide pain relief, improve mobility, and prevent future strain and injury.
- Trigger point release: As the name implies, trigger point therapy involves identifying and releasing specific trigger points in the body that cause pain. The PT will use their thumb or a tool to apply indirect pressure to the trigger point until the muscles and other soft tissues around the point relax.
- Soft tissue massage: Soft tissue massage involves direct physical pressure on the muscle and other soft tissues of the body. The PT will use their hands to apply a variety of massage depths and pressures to break up muscle knots (adhesions) and restore muscle flexibility and function.
- Myofascial release: Myofascial release is a technique in which the therapist uses their hands to place slow, sustained pressure on a muscle that is stiff and painful. The manual pressure loosens, lengthens, and realigns tight, stiff myofascial muscles.
Massage Therapy Cost
Physical therapy costs vary. What you will pay will depend on whether or not your health insurance covers some or all of the price of treatment sessions. The cost can range anywhere from $30 to $150 per session.
Many insurance companies provide some coverage for physical therapy and massage. You might be responsible for paying a copay for each visit.
Check with your insurance provider by calling the number on the back of your insurance card or logging into the member portal on their website to learn more about your specific policy coverage.
If cost is a concern and/or insurance coverage is not an option, some physical therapists may provide treatment sessions on a sliding scale. There are also some at-home PT massage solutions that you might be able to try for more affordable pain relief.
Physical Therapy Tools to Try at Home
Whether you’re looking to support your physical therapy treatment plan with at-home exercises or prefer to manage your treatment on your own, a number of physical therapy tools are available that you can use at home.
A few examples of tools to try include:
- Exercise ball: This can be used as a prop for stretching and range of motion exercises, or be used for a full-body strengthening workout.
- Foam rollers: These tools apply pressure and slowly roll over an area of your body to release trigger points and loosen tight soft tissues. Foam rollers can also be used for joint mobility exercises and as props for stability exercises.
- Massage gun: Percussive massagers apply pressure to muscle tissue to help relieve pain and tension by increasing blood flow to the targeted area.
- Myofascial release balls: These tools can be used for trigger point release and soft tissue mobilization. Their small size allows them to get deeper into tissues, especially in hard-to-reach areas of the body.
- Thera Cane: This candy cane-shaped tool can be used as a self-massager on tight muscles for pain relief. The cane allows you to massage hard-to-reach muscles and apply as much pressure as you need for relief.
- Resistance bands: These elastic, rubber-like bands are used to strengthen muscles, as well as improve stability and muscle function.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the benefits of massage therapy?
Massage therapy reduces muscle pain and tension, improves joint flexibility and mobility, aids in the recovery of soft tissue injuries, improves circulation, and reduces stress hormones and depression.
How can I try massage therapy at home?
If you don’t have a family member or friend who can give you a massage, self-massage (using your own hands or tools to massage your tender areas) is an option.
Alternatively, physical therapy tools, such as massage guns and foam rollers, can help you work out muscle tension in targeted areas.
Some massage and physical therapists also offer at-home visits.
Are all physical therapists the same?
There are many types of specialist physical therapists. Some physical therapists work with certain populations, such as athletes, older adults, or children. Other PTs have expertise in particular areas of the body, such as cardiopulmonary physical therapists (the heart) and orthopedic physical therapists (bones).
A Word From Verywell
Whether you’re recovering from an injury or surgery or living with a chronic condition, physical therapy massage might be worth exploring alongside standard treatment to provide pain relief, strengthen your muscles and other soft tissues, and help relieve stress.
Physical therapy massage can also be helpful if you want to improve posture, reduce stress, and relieve pain after workouts. Ask your primary care physician for a referral to a physical therapist in your area or find out if your state allows direct access to physical therapy.