Your health expert: Emma Mitchell, Physiotherapist, Bupa UK
Content editor review by Pippa Coulter, February 2023
Next review due, February 2026

Physiotherapy (or ‘physical therapy’) aims to restore or maintain movement and function in your body. It can help you recover from illness and injury, or manage long-term health conditions. Physiotherapy can also help to prevent injury or health problems.

About physiotherapy

Physiotherapy can be a combination of hands-on care (also known as manual therapy or mobilisation), exercises, advice and education. It may also involve more specialist techniques, such as acupuncture and shockwave therapy. It’s carried out by a health professional called a physiotherapist (or ‘physio’).

Physiotherapy can help to build up muscle strength. It can also improve flexibility and mobility (how well you move). This can help with pain and function (how well your muscle or joint works).

Uses of physiotherapy

Physiotherapy can help with a wide range of conditions and problems. These include the following.

  • Problems with your muscles, bones and joints. This includes lower back pain, neck pain and sports injuries, like knee injuries. It also includes long-term conditions, like osteoarthritis or osteoporosis. A physiotherapist can help with pain management and keeping you moving.
  • Conditions affecting your lungs. Examples include cystic fibrosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma. A physiotherapist may be able to teach you breathing techniques to manage your condition.
  • Conditions affecting your nervous system, like Parkinson’s disease, stroke and multiple sclerosis (MS). A physiotherapist can help with managing your condition, keeping active and maintaining your independence.
  • Bladder or bowel incontinence. This is when you lose control of when you wee or poo. A physiotherapist can show you exercises to strengthen the muscles around your bladder and bowel.
  • Problems during and after pregnancy. Examples include back pain and prolapse – when organs in your pelvis push down into your vagina.
  • Recovering after a serious injury, illness or surgery. This might include after having a heart attack or stroke. A physiotherapist can help with your rehabilitation (‘rehab’). This may include regaining strength and mobility after your illness or surgery.

Finding a physiotherapist

Physiotherapists work from a wide range of places, including health clinics, hospitals and workplaces. Some GP surgeries have a physiotherapist based at the surgery.

There are a number of ways to access physiotherapy treatment.

  • You can see your GP, who may refer you to an NHS physiotherapist.
  • In some areas, you may be able to refer yourself to an NHS physiotherapist directly, without seeing your GP (self-referral). Contact your GP surgery to find out if this is available.
  • Check with your employer whether they run an occupational health scheme that includes physiotherapy.
  • If you have private health insurance, it may cover physiotherapy treatment. Check your policy to see if there are any terms and conditions.
  • You can also choose to pay to see a private physiotherapist. The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy has a directory of private physiotherapists on their website, called Physio2u.

It's important to check that your physiotherapist is registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). This means they have completed approved standards of training and follow the HCPC rules of professional conduct.

Your physiotherapy appointment

When you first see a physiotherapist, they will carry out a detailed assessment. This will include asking about your symptoms and your medical history. They’ll also do a physical examination. This will depend on why you’re seeing the physiotherapist. It might include seeing how you move and how your muscles, nerves and joints are working.

Your physiotherapist will then work with you to create a treatment programme. This will usually involve setting a goal or outcome that you want to achieve. Your programme may include different options, such as advice on managing pain, exercises for you to do at home and manual therapies.

Your physiotherapist should talk through any treatments they recommend in detail with you. This may include:

  • exactly what the treatments involve
  • how many sessions you may need
  • any possible side-effects of treatments
  • the expected costs of any treatment, if you’re having private physiotherapy

If you have any questions, take this chance to ask your physiotherapist. You will need to give your consent before they can go ahead with any treatment.

Physiotherapy sessions usually last around 30 minutes to an hour, depending on what treatments you’re having. A standard course of therapy is five or six weekly sessions, but you may need more or less than this. It depends on what you’re having physiotherapy for, how long it takes to treat and how well you recover. Your physiotherapist will keep a check on your progress throughout your treatment programme. They’ll let you know when they think you’ve reached your goal.

Treatment techniques for physiotherapy

The exercises and other techniques your physiotherapist suggests will depend on why you're having physiotherapy. It also depends on which techniques your physiotherapist has had training in. The main physiotherapy treatments are explained below.

Physiotherapy exercises

Your physiotherapist may develop a programme of exercises for you, to improve your fitness, strength, flexibility and mobility. These may include the following.

  • Stretching exercises. These can help to improve movement and range of motion in your joints. You may do the exercises and stretches by yourself or with the support of your physiotherapist.
  • Muscle-strengthening exercises. Strengthening your muscles is important to support your joints. It can help to reduce pain, protect your joints from further injury and restore full physical function. Strength exercises might use your own body weight. Or they might include resistance training with items, such as stretchy bands and weights.
  • Balance and co-ordination exercises. These involve combinations of movements to challenge your balance, or to work different muscles and joints together. They’re important in being able to maintain full physical function.


Massage means the physiotherapist will use their hands to apply pressure to parts of your body. It may involve stroking, kneading, pressing or tapping your skin to move the muscles and soft tissues below. Massage can help to improve your mobility by loosening muscles and tissue that have become tight (have ‘knots’). It may also help reduce pain and swelling. You will usually have it alongside other types of physiotherapy, such as exercises.

Joint mobilisation or manipulation

These are manual, ‘hands-on’ therapies where your physiotherapist applies physical pressure to areas of your spine, to reduce pain or improve mobility. In mobilisation, your physiotherapist slowly moves your joint within its normal range of movement. During manipulation, your physiotherapist may use short, sharp movements (‘thrusts’) to move your joint beyond its normal range of movement.


Acupuncture is a complementary therapy aimed at reducing pain. It involves your physiotherapist putting fine needles into your skin at specific points around your body. This is believed to interfere with the pain signals to your brain, and may also trigger the release of natural painkillers in your body. Your physiotherapist may use it alongside other types of physiotherapy to help relieve pain.

Dry needling

In dry needling, your physiotherapist places fine acupuncture needles into specific points of your muscles, called ‘trigger points’. The aim of treatment is to relieve pain and tightness and improve movement.


Taping is often used to support injuries to your joints. It’s also sometimes used to help improve posture and movement during sport and exercise. Different types of tape can be used depending on what type of injury you have.

Rigid tape limits your movement. It’s usually used to prevent injury or help prevent an existing injury from getting worse. Flexible tape, such as Kinesio or RockTape aims to reduce inflammation and provide short-term pain relief from injuries. There’s limited evidence to support its use, but you may find it helps. Discuss with your physiotherapist whether it’s worth a try.


Hydrotherapy is a set of exercises that you do in a pool. The warm water helps to relax your joints and muscles and relieve pain. Water also supports you, which means you may be able to move more without it causing pain.


Electrotherapy includes treatments like ultrasound, shockwave therapy and low-level laser to reduce pain and encourage healing.

It also includes transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), which your physiotherapist can show you how to do yourself at home. TENS is a small device that you attach to your skin with pads. It produces a low-level electric pulse, which feels like a tingle on your skin. It can help to relieve pain.

Side-effects of physiotherapy

You may feel a bit sore at first after doing physiotherapy exercises. But that doesn’t mean they’re harmful. Not exercising can make you stiff, and any pain worse. Manual techniques like manipulation can also cause some pain or discomfort for a short time. Many of the techniques physiotherapists use work at or close to the area that’s injured or painful. This will naturally be painful for a little while during or after your treatment. But physiotherapy generally reduces pain in the long term.

If you have pain that doesn't settle after your physiotherapy session, talk to your physiotherapist. You can take over-the-counter painkillers to help manage any pain at home.

Acupuncture and dry needling can be associated with mild, temporary side-effects, like pain, bruising and bleeding at the injection site. Severe side-effects are rare.

You may get symptoms affecting your skin after treatments like shockwave therapy and TENS. For example, your skin may appear red, swollen or bruised and you may get abnormal sensations. These should also be temporary.

Looking for physiotherapy?

You can access a range of treatments on a pay as you go basis, including physiotherapy.

To book or to make an enquiry, call us on 0370 218 6528

You may get some pain or discomfort after some physiotherapy techniques. For example, physiotherapy exercises may cause some soreness. But this should only be short-term. Physiotherapy generally reduces pain in the long term. See our section on Side-effects of physiotherapy to find out more.

Physiotherapy can help with various conditions affecting your muscles, bones and joints. This includes back pain. There are lots of physiotherapy techniques that can help with back pain. These include exercises and manual therapies like mobilisation and manipulation.

Massage is just one technique that a physiotherapist may offer. Massage means applying physical pressure to the affected part of your body. This may be through stroking, pressing, kneading or tapping your skin. It can help with pain and swelling. See our section on Physiotherapy techniques to find out more.

It can be anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour. This depends on why you are having physiotherapy, and exactly what treatments you’re having. Read more in our section, Your physiotherapy appointment.

More on this topic

Did our Physiotherapy information help you?

We’d love to hear what you think. Our short survey takes just a few minutes to complete and helps us to keep improving our health information.

The health information on this page is intended for informational purposes only. We do not endorse any commercial products, or include Bupa's fees for treatments and/or services. For more information about prices visit:

This information was published by Bupa's Health Content Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals and deemed accurate on the date of review. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition.

Any information about a treatment or procedure is generic, and does not necessarily describe that treatment or procedure as delivered by Bupa or its associated providers.

The information contained on this page and in any third party websites referred to on this page is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice nor is it intended to be for medical diagnosis or treatment. Third party websites are not owned or controlled by Bupa and any individual may be able to access and post messages on them. Bupa is not responsible for the content or availability of these third party websites. We do not accept advertising on this page.

  • What is physiotherapy? Chartered Society of Physiotherapy., last reviewed 14 March 2018
  • What is physiotherapy? World Physiotherapy., accessed 1 February 2023
  • Physical therapy. Encyclopaedia Britannica., last updated 23 December 2022
  • Physiotherapy. Versus Arthritis., accessed 1 February 2023
  • Physical therapy (PT). MSD Manuals., last full review/revision August 2021
  • Back pain -–low (without radiculopathy). NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries., last revised November 2022
  • Sprains and strains. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries, last revised September 2020
  • Arthritis. Chartered Society of Physiotherapy., last reviewed 10 May 2021
  • Treatment for back pain. Chartered Society of Physiotherapy., last reviewed 29 January 2019
  • Treatment for knee pain. Chartered Society of Physiotherapy., last reviewed 26 March 2020
  • Asthma. Chartered Society of Physiotherapy., last revised 3 May 2017
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Chartered Society of Physiotherapy., last reviewed 27 May 2020
  • Multiple sclerosis. Chartered Society of Physiotherapy., last reviewed 3 May 2017
  • Parkinson's. Chartered Society of Physiotherapy., last reviewed 3 May 2017
  • Stroke. Chartered Society of Physiotherapy., last reviewed 28 May 2020
  • Getting help for incontinence. Chartered Society of Physiotherapy., last reviewed 27 January 2020
  • Genitourinary prolapse. Patient., last reviewed 19 January 2022
  • How can I reduce irritable back pain? Tommy's., reviewed 10 September 2018
  • Rehabilitation. Chartered Society of Physiotherapy., last reviewed 3 May 2017
  • Find a Chartered Physiotherapist. Chartered Society of Physiotherapy., last reviewed 24 January 2023
  • Getting help for back pain. Chartered Society of Physiotherapy., last reviewed 29 January 2019
  • Standards of physical therapy practice. World Physiotherapy., published 2011
  • Personal communication, Emma Mitchell, Physiotherapist Bupa UK, 20 February 2023
  • Physical activity guidelines: UK Chief Medical Officers' report. GOV.UK., published 7 September 2019
  • Musculoskeletal lower back pain. BMJ Best Practice., last reviewed 3 January 2023
  • Massage, traction, and manipulation. Medscape., 1 April 2020
  • Massage. Versus Arthritis., accessed 3 February 2023
  • Rehabilitative measures for treatment of pain and inflammation. MSD Manual., last review/revision August 2021
  • Coulter ID, Crawford C, Hurwitz EL, et al. Manipulation and mobilization for treating chronic low back pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Spine J 2018; 18(5):866–79. doi: 10.1016/j.spinee.2018.01.013
  • Tantanatip A, Chang KV. Myofascial pain syndrome. StatPearls Publishing., last updated 4 July 2022
  • Cupler ZA, Alrwaily M, Polakowski E, et al. Taping for conditions of the musculoskeletal system: an evidence map review. Chiropr Man Therap 2020; 28(1):52. doi: 10.1186/s12998-020-00337-2
  • Tendinopathy. BMJ Best Practice., last reviewed 4 January 2023
  • Back pain. Versus Arthritis., accessed 3 February 2023
  • Bäumler P, Zhang W, Stübinger T, et al. Acupuncture-related adverse events: systematic review and meta-analyses of prospective clinical studies. BMJ Open 2021; 11(9):e045961. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2020-045961
  • Boyce D, Wempe H, Campbell C, et al. Adverse events associated with therapeutic dry needling. Int J Sports Phys Ther 2020; 15(1):103–13
  • Roerdink RL, Dietvorst M, van der Zwaard B, et al. Complications of extracorporeal shockwave therapy in plantar fasciitis: Systematic review. Int J Surg. 2017; 46:133–45. doi: 10.1016/j.ijsu.2017.08.587
  • Electronic pain relief (TENS). Versus Arthritis., accessed 3 February 2023
The Patient Information Forum tick

Our information has been awarded the PIF tick for trustworthy health information.

Content is loading