This hands-on approach separates physical therapists from other health practitioners. Although manual therapy may refer to many things, therapists usually employ common tactics like stretching, massage, and hands-on strengthening exercises to reeducate the body into proper movement and mechanics. “Manual therapy is a prime method to removing movement restrictions and helping patients move better,” according to Dr. Reinold. He also advises that manual therapy should form the backbone of any treatment plan, not modalities like ice and electric stimulation.
Best for: Injuries involving inflammation and swelling
Ice can be a major component of injury treatment. By constricting blood vessels after application, ice is an effective way to reduce and even prevent inflammation immediately following an injury. Cold therapy can also leave the joint more mobile and enhance manual therapy. Although it’s difficult to nail down the most effective protocol, applying cold packs to inflamed areas has been shown to significantly reduce swelling in soft tissue injuries .
Best for: Injuries involving muscular spasms and tightness
Applying heat has been shown to decrease pain and increase mobility after some injuries — mainly those involving soft tissue like muscles, tendons, and ligaments . By making the tissue more pliable, the therapist can better stretch the affected area. Note: Heat is just one tool to help the therapist be more effective, Dr. Reinold says, it shouldn’t be the main focus of a treatment plan.
Best for: Connective tissue injuries
By using sound waves (undetectable to the human ear) to generate heat deep in the body, ultrasound therapy can help loosen up tissues in preparation for manual therapy or exercise. How it works: Therapists use a wand (unfortunately not the magic kind!) to apply the sound waves directly — and safely — to the skin. Ultrasound has also been shown to increase ligament-healing speed in our furry counterparts (read: rats), though more studies are needed to show whether the same holds true for us .
Best for: Muscular or connective tissue injuries
Laser therapy uses specific wavelengths of light to stimulate healing (well below the skin so you don’t feel a thing). Best-case scenario: The treatment can help reduce inflammation, muscle fatigue, and pain . It can also allow the therapist to move the affected joint around easier with less discomfort.