The rise of online physical therapy: What is it, and how does it work?

October is National Physical Therapy month. Even if you’ve never done it, you may have some idea of what physical therapy (PT) is all about. And considering that nearly 50% of American adults are dealing with some kind of back, joint or muscle condition for which PT may be needed, chances are that you may get acquainted with it at some point.

Physical therapy is widely accepted as an effective first line of treatment for back, joint and muscle conditions —both because it’s a low-risk option and because research shows that it works! 

But physical therapy is not always the most popular option because it’s not usually a “quick fix” — instead, it takes some time to start seeing results. This may be in opposition to modern society’s value of instant gratification, which is perhaps why nearly 65-75% of patients fail to stick to their physical therapy treatment plan. Patients often drop out or decide it’s not working before they start to see results. 

Other treatments, like massage, chiropractic care, medications, injections and sometimes even surgery, can be more appealing because they may seem to offer quicker — albeit often less permanent — pain relief. Unfortunately, all these options come with several challenges that can make it tough for people to get the help they need when they need it. 

Traditional treatments don’t work for everyone, here’s why.

Buy-in for the traditional PT model, chiropractic care and even doctor’s visits comes at a literal and figurative price; for many, this price is too steep. Here are some challenges that tend to make traditional treatment methods difficult to stick to:

  1. Cost: Depending on your insurance, you may have steep copays, deductibles and other unexpected expenses. On top of that, many insurance companies limit the number of sessions or types of treatments that are covered, so you may not be able to get what you need without paying out of pocket for it.
  1. Time: Traditional PT and other in-person treatments can be a big time commitment. In addition to the time for appointments, tack on travel time at each end, and you’re looking at an average commitment of at least a few hours per week.
  1. Inconvenience: Most clinics are open from 8 AM to 6 PM, and most doctor’s offices aren’t even open that late. If you’re lucky, you may find a facility that opens as early as 7 AM and closes as late as 8 PM. But naturally, early and late appointment times are highly coveted. With competition steep for those before and after work times, you may need to change your schedule or even miss work to make it to your appointments. And if you’re also juggling family commitments or childcare, things can become even more complicated. 
  1. Reliance on the healthcare system: Arguably, a healthcare provider’s most important job is to educate and empower you to better care for your health. Of course, these professionals are also trained in many different interventions that can help make you feel better. And while treatments like massage, assisted stretching, chiropractic adjustments, and other hands-on therapies have their place, they are just one piece of the recovery puzzle. After all, you can’t go to a PT, doctor or chiropractor forever.

If any of these challenges are familiar to you, you’re not alone. In fact, it’s quite common for these things to stand in the way of people getting the help they need. Here are some of the things that RecoveryOne members had to say about the challenges they faced before they decided to try RecoveryOne:

“I had also reached out to a chiropractor in my area, who had claimed he could heal me and eliminate my pain forever — for a price of over $2000, none of which would be covered by my insurance.” – Patrick S.

“…I probably would’ve continued to try to figure it out on my own, and then I would’ve ended up at a doctor, and who knows what that would’ve led to.” – Shannon K.

“I went to the local clinic, and they told me I needed surgery. I said, ‘No thanks, I’ll find another way.’ But, being a shift worker, going to PT was not an option for me.” – Andy G.

Lucky for us, healthcare continues to grow and evolve in response to these ever-present access challenges. Due in part to the pandemic and the persistent difficulties with traditional treatments, online back, joint and muscle care solutions have grown quickly and are starting to take their place alongside the traditional model in the world of physical therapy.

But is online physical therapy really a good alternative?

You are not alone if you’re a bit puzzled about how physical therapy can be done online. The confusion goes back to the perception of PT as a hands-on experience that always includes massage, stretching, dry needling and other manual therapies. 

But, arguably, a high-quality PT experience doesn’t have to include manual therapy at all. Instead, key factors like condition understanding, body/self-awareness, lifestyle changes, motivation and a good corrective exercise program play a much bigger role in deciding whether you’ll be successful with physical therapy or not. Because, after all, if you have the tools you need to understand and manage your health, you can consistently make better lifestyle choices and keep your condition under control long term.

So, online physical therapy is a lot like in-person PT minus hands-on therapy. This treatment model emphasizes education, corrective exercises and building your confidence to manage your conditions with lifestyle changes. Let’s explore each of these a little more:

  1. Education. Sometimes the most frustrating part about pain or an injury is not knowing what caused it or what to do. Having a basic understanding of your body’s anatomy and why you’re having pain can give you much power. For example, if your back is stiff and sore, you may feel like you want to bend forward to give it a good stretch. But did you know that repeated bending can sometimes be the CAUSE of back pain, and this stretch might actually make it worse? You don’t know what you don’t know; knowledge is power. Online physical therapy focuses on helping you understand your condition so you can be confident you are doing all the right things to address it!
  1. Corrective exercises. You may be familiar with the concept of exercise but may not be clear on what it means for exercises to be “corrective.” All this means is that when you have pain, some exercises usually help you correct the problem, and some will either do nothing or even make it worse (like the bending example above). But how are you supposed to know what exercises are “corrective?” You’re not! Physical therapists go to school for seven years or more so they can provide you with a top-notch program full of movements that act as “medicine” for your condition. Don’t go at it alone when help is only a few clicks away!
  1. Self-management and lifestyle changes. What happens when traditional PT or chiropractor treatments or doctor’s visits stop? It’s up to you to keep it managed! Online physical therapy solutions hand over the control to you so you can fill your toolbox with everything you need to stay as healthy as possible and keep your pain from returning or your condition from worsening. Some programs even add health coaching that can help you with things like motivation, behavior change and habit forming so you can take better care of your health as a whole!

Plus, the online physical therapy model addresses the challenges we explored earlier by reducing costs, improving convenience, cutting your time commitment and giving control to you. Not to mention that this treatment model can be done anytime, anywhere and is more likely to fit into your busy lifestyle. 

RecoveryOne is making PT more accessible for those who need it.

With over 200 programs developed by leading orthopedic professionals and licensed physical therapists, RecoveryOne gives you access to the care and support you need at home to recover on time. Your program can adapt to your lifestyle, so you don’t have to disrupt your schedule to squeeze in recovery time. If you have 20 minutes, three times per week, that’s what your program will be. If you want to do your exercises more often, you can adjust your program to accommodate that.

Because our model is 100% online, RecoveryOne does not rely on manual therapies to help you get better. And while we all may love a good massage, when it comes down to it, treatments that drive results are what we want, not short-term fixes. RecoveryOne’s programs are designed with carefully-chosen corrective exercises, health coaching and physical therapist support to give you everything you need to stay motivated, confidently address your condition and start feeling better. After all, the only treatment programs that work are the ones you can stick to!

Did I mention that, for eligible members, RecoveryOne is also available at no additional cost?

About the Author:

Written by Dr. Jess Cobb, PT, DPT. Jess is a licensed physical therapist with over six years of clinical experience in orthopedics. Jess is also a writer, educator and member of RecoveryOne’s marketing team. She’s passionate about helping people better understand their pain, manage their musculoskeletal conditions and confidently get back to the activities they love

This blog and its contents do not constitute medical advice specific to you or your condition. The information provided is for educational purposes only and should not be used for self-diagnosis. Consult a qualified professional for appropriate medical advice.