Older people may suffer from a large number of conditions that physiotherapists can help with. Here we explain how a physio could help your relative or friend and how to get access to one.

On this page you can find out about:

1. What can a physio help with?
2. What different kind of physiotherapists are there?
3. How can I get a physiotherapy appointment for my relative?
4. What happens at a physiotherapy appointment?
5. How much does physiotherapy cost?

What can a physio help with?

Elderly care physiotherapists help older people have as much bodily movement and function as possible by assessing their problems or injury, providing treatment and advising on their long-term needs in their homes, in hospitals and in care homes.

Older people have specialised needs and often have more than one medical condition at any one time, making the assessment and management of their problem more complicated.

A physiotherapist can assess, treat and advise on a large number of medical conditions, including:

  • Dementia and frailty: exercise classes can promote mental activity, joint mobility, muscle strength and balance. Relatives can be taught how to safely move their frail loved one.
  • Falls: if your relative has had a fall, a physio can help them improve their muscle strength and balance. Research has shown that if a physio is part of  the medical team helping an older person after a fall, the risk of a fall happening again drops by up to 55%.
  • Fractures: rehabilitation after broken bones, particularly common ones such as a fractured hip or wrist, is very important to get your relative back to their normal abilities.
  • Musculoskeletal complaints: physios can treat lower back pain, neck pain, knee pain, hip pain and pain from other joints, ligaments and muscles.
  • Osteoporosis: if your relative suffers from weakened bones, exercise programmes to strengthen the back muscles and encourage weight-bearing and aerobic activities can promote improvements in bone density.
  • Osteoarthritis and other arthritic conditions: physiotherapists can assess painful joints and give advice on how to maintain joint movement and strength. They can also help your relative with pain management, set up an activity schedule, show your relative how to walk correctly and advise on the use of walking aids.
  • Parkinson’s disease: physiotherapy can improve arm function, posture, walking and balance through exercise. This can make your relative’s movements easier, safer and more controlled.
  • Stroke: specialist neurological physiotherapists treat the paralysis, muscle spasms, postural control loss and functional difficulties that your relative might suffer from after a stroke.

Physios can help with other problems too, such as  if your relative has a heart or lung problem, or suffers from incontinence.

What different kinds of physiotherapists are there?

Musculoskeletal physiotherapists help people who have problems with their muscles, joints and ligaments of the body’s moving parts. They use manipulation, mobilisation techniques, exercise, soft tissue treatments and electrotherapy.

Neurological physiotherapists specialise in treating conditions that affect the nervous system, such as stroke, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and head injuries.

Other physiotherapists specialise in care of older people, palliative care (such as if your relative has cancer), women’s health, rehabilitation after heart and lung illnesses, osteoporosis and falls prevention.

Regardless of their specialism, many physiotherapists also use acupuncture as an add-on treatment to help manage painful conditions.

How can I get a physiotherapy appointment for my relative?

You can either get physiotherapy from NHS practitioners via a referral from a doctor or another physiotherapist, or private practitioners, who don’t require a referral.

The vast majority of private practitioners treat musculoskeletal conditions and it can be more difficult to find a private physio who treats other conditions, such as stroke or incontinence.

NHS physiotherapy

A GP may refer your relative to physiotherapy in their local area or, in some cases, to a specialist unit. There will usually be a wait of a few weeks for this.

Some GP surgeries have direct access to a physiotherapist instead of having to see the doctor first, so you can book your relative in directly. This works better for less complex issues such as back, neck or knee pain.

Some areas of the UK allow general self-referral to physiotherapy and your relative’s GP surgery should be able to help with this information.

Private physiotherapy

If you are happy to pay for your relative’s treatment or they have health insurance that covers physiotherapy (check the policy), then you can self-refer to any private physiotherapy clinic.

To find a physiotherapy clinic in your area, do a Google search such as ‘physiotherapy Surbiton’ or take a look at the physiotherapy networks Local Physio, which operates a dedicated Find a Physio searchable directory for chartered physiotherapists across the UK, and Physio2u.

Making an appointment is then as simple as ringing the clinic and asking for one. They will take your relative’s details, ask you what they are attending for and advise you as necessary.

Most people attend the physiotherapy clinic but some clinics do offer home visits for those unwilling or unable to get to the clinic. These are more expensive than normal appointments and usually you have to pay mileage from the clinic.

Clinics typically offer home visits only within a certain radius due to travelling times and costs.

What happens at a physiotherapy appointment?

The initial appointment with a physiotherapist is always an assessment, although in many cases some treatment will be given too. This may last from 30 minutes to an hour.

Follow-up appointments are usually around 30 minutes and are made up mainly of treatment. Most people may have three or four follow-up sessions in their course of treatment, but it can be more if they have complex or long-term needs.

The physiotherapist will need to see the part of the body that is giving your relative the problems you are worried about. This means they may be asked to undress to some degree. If your relative is worried about this, you can ask for him or her to be seen by a physiotherapist of the appropriate gender when you make the appointment. It won’t always be possible to fulfil this request, however.

Your relative will very likely be given some exercises to do to help their condition before they come back for the next follow-up appointment. These will typically be demonstrated by the physiotherapist and your relative may be given a sheet to remind them to do their exercises at home.

How much does physiotherapy cost?

The cost of private physiotherapy appointments varies greatly across the UK. An initial assessment can cost from £30 to £70 or more in London. Home visits are always more expensive than clinic appointments.

If your relative has health insurance, it is important to check with them before you make an appointment so the insurer can give the OK. You will need a reference from the insurer so the physiotherapy clinic can bill them direct and you don’t have to pay up front.

More information

  • Dealing with a fall: read about the most common causes of falls in the home, and how to prevent them from happening.
  • NHS funding for care: in certain circumstances, your relative could be eligible for NHS funding for nursing care - find out how. 
  • Dealing with changing care needs: we look at ways your relative's care requirement can change over time, and the solutions that can help support you.

About the author

This article was written by Jonathan Blood Smyth, who is a Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) registered physiotherapist in the UK. Jonathan has extensive NHS experience and was head of department in a large NHS hospital in the south west of England.

Jonathan is a director at Local Physio and writes on physiotherapy health related issues. You can read more of his articles by visiting Physiotherapy Health Topics A-Z.

Page first published: July 2016
Next review due: March 2018