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What you should expect with your first visit to your physical therapist

Updated: Apr 13, 2023

Never seen a physical therapist before? Perhaps you had a less-than-desireable experience elsewhere? Not knowing what to expect can be daunting, and having had an unsatisfactory experience before can really impact your expectations. At Smithfield Physical Therapy Specialists, here's what you should expect.

The History

There is an age-old adage in medicine and healthcare that the majority of the information we need for a working diagnosis lies in your history. The first visit with us will include a deep and detailed history where we will explore where your symptoms are (and aren't). As simple as this may seem, a clear picture of where your symptoms are informs your provider as to what things could be causing these symptoms – it's not always the case that pain at point A is caused by whatever is situated under point A (in fact, we routinely see something different). From here, gaining an understanding of how severe, how easy to provoke, and how easy to ease your symptoms are informs how much or how little physical examination will be needed to get to the root cause of your symptoms. Questions about what causes or bothers your symptoms, what makes your symptoms calm down, and how you've managed your symptoms thus far can help provide insight as to what body structures may be more likely to cause your symptoms. All of this information in the context of your medical history and history of current symptoms should paint a picture as to what likely is the issue.

The Physical Exam

We use your history and interview to give us a general idea of what may be causing your symptoms. The physical exam is intended to confirm or dispute these hypotheses. For example, you may be dealing with shoulder and arm pain. We could simply assume that your rotator cuff is responsible for this – but what if neck is actually the cause? We utilize the physical exam to help determine the best treatment strategies.

In the images below, we have a comparison to show how some tissues or structures can generate symptoms in the same area. "Tennis elbow" (lateral elbow pain) is a common diagnosis, and per the research, it can be a very persistent issue. Here, if we just treat the wrist extensors (what's usually faulted for "classic tennis elbow") but the cervical spine and/or neural structures are at least partially responsible, we might be missing a big piece of what's causing your pain. At SPTS, we strongly believe that one-on-one care and thorough investigation are key pieces in getting you on the right track to feeling better – no assuming, no guessing.

Starting Off on the Right Foot

In using all of the information and detail gathered from the history and physical exam, we can offer you specific interventions – hands-on treatment and specific strategies to manage

your symptoms at home (or wherever) – in an effort to get you back on track and back to your normal life. Whether that means getting back out on the court, back in the garden, back to sleep, or just simply back to you, we value the importance of being specific and offering you the best treatments at our disposal so that you can get back as quickly as possible.


Downs MB, Laporte C. Conflicting dermatome maps: Educational and clinical implications. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2011;41(6)427-434.


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