A physical therapist stretches out a patient.
Regular work with a physical therapist can keep you active and committed to fitness. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

When Holly Shoemaker was training for the New York Marathon, she started having some back pain.

Without hesitating, she called a physical therapist for an appointment and got help the next day. She didn’t see her doctor first. She didn’t pay for a doctor’s office visit. And she didn’t wait for a referral.

It’s that easy, thanks to a new Michigan law that lets patients seek physical therapy without a prescription.

Holly’s husband, Mike Shoemaker, PT, DPT, PhD, is a practicing therapist for Spectrum Health and an associate professor of physical therapy at Grand Valley State University. He’s also vice president of the Michigan Physical Therapy Association, a group that worked to promote direct access to care in Michigan.

Dr. Shoemaker said he’d like everyone to be as knowledgeable as Holly about physical therapy.

10 essential facts everyone should know:

1. It will help you get your groove back.

Physical therapy is about exercise, movement and using your muscles to be healthier. It can help you prevent injury. It can improve your posture. It can help your balance. And it can reduce your pain.

2. Physical therapists have lots of know-how.

Seeing a physical therapist is better than getting tips from your family doctor or a personal trainer because they have more knowledge about exercise and movement than any other health care professional.

Before becoming a doctor of physical therapy, they must complete a bachelor’s degree and a three-year post-graduate program. They’re experts in understanding how biology, chemistry, physics, biomechanics, neuroanatomy, physiology and human development affect human movement.

3. It’s not one-size-fits-all.

Physical therapists design specific rehab programs based on your needs.

“In the internet age, it’s tempting to look for answers online, but you won’t find that kind of expertise on YouTube,” Dr. Shoemaker said. “Treatments should be highly individualized. For example, not all shoulder problems are alike. It’s important to have an individualized plan that considers the patient and their situation.”

4. You have to work it.

Your physical therapist will show you what to do and how to do it—they may even give you handouts or videos to prompt your memory. But once you leave the office, it’s up to you. You’ll get the best results when you actively participate in your therapy.

“It’s really about empowerment, giving people the knowledge and the skills to take care of themselves and their health,” Dr. Shoemaker said.

5. You can be healthier, even when you’re not the healthiest.

Your physical therapist will be sensitive to special medical needs and any hurdles you face. While some patients are quite healthy, others may have medical problems including heart disease, stroke or cancer. Or they may have chronic conditions like diabetes, COPD or other concerns.

“Some patients have very complex medical issues. Physical therapists are uniquely qualified to help,” said Dr. Shoemaker, who even works with patients who have received heart or lung transplants.

6. It’s not just about joints and muscles.

Physical therapy builds strength and endurance. Your nerves, your brain, your lungs, your heart and even your skin can benefit.

7. There’s someone for everyone.

Not all physical therapists are alike, according to Dr. Shoemaker. Specializations include pediatrics, orthopaedics, sports, women’s health, cardiopulmonary, neurology, oncology and geriatrics. So, if you have a unique situation, look for a therapist who’s right for you.

8. It can help you live better—and maybe even live longer.

This sounds like an empty promise, but it’s true.

Physical therapists help patients stay more active, improve their balance and prevent falls. According to Dr. Shoemaker, this means a healthier heart, healthier lungs and less likelihood of breaking a bone and then dealing with the related complications.

9. No prescription is needed, which could save you time and money.

Like Holly, you can skip the doctor visit and see a physical therapist for up to 21 days, or 10 visits without a referral. This may also help you avoid unnecessary medical costs. Physical therapists can often diagnose and treat patients without first needing X-rays or MRIs.

10. It’s smart to check your coverage.

Insurance companies have their own rules, and some may still require a referral or prescription before they cover your care. To avoid surprises, contact your carrier’s customer service department. Medicare and Medicaid coverage also have special requirements.

“Your physical therapist will be knowledgeable about coverage and can help you sort out the details,” Dr. Shoemaker said.