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What does a physiotherapist do?

7-minute read

Key facts

  • Physiotherapists are trained health professionals who specialise in problems with pain or movement.
  • Physiotherapy during pregnancy helps to maintain movement and reduce muscle strain and damage.
  • Pregnancy hormones soften supporting ligaments and muscles, making them more susceptible to strain.
  • • Pregnancy and birth can affect your body in many ways, causing muscles stretch, and ligaments soften, especially those in your abdomen and your pelvic floor.
  • Discomfort, pain and changes in mobility are common during pregnancy and after you’ve had your baby.

What is physiotherapy?

Physiotherapy is a branch of medical science that studies how humans move. It uses physical therapy to promote healthy movement and reduce pain. Physiotherapists are trained health professionals who assess, diagnose and recommend treatment options to help restore proper body functioning. They must be registered with the Australian Health Practitioner Registration Agency (AHPRA).

Common goals of physiotherapy are to increase joint movement, increase muscle and tendon flexibility and reduce stiffness. Physiotherapy is also a technique to prevent injury and build muscle strength and tone.

Physiotherapists can specialise in different areas, for example sports medicine, paediatrics and musculoskeletal rehabilitation. Women's health physiotherapists focus on pregnancy and disorders of the pelvis and pelvic floor.

Why might I need physiotherapy during pregnancy?

It's not uncommon for women to first see a physiotherapist when they become pregnant. Pregnancy, or prenatal, physiotherapy helps to reduce pain in the main joints that are commonly strained during pregnancy.

Pelvic girdle pain is one of the most commonly experienced pregnancy-related musculoskeletal conditions. It generally occurs because of changes to the posture and increased pelvic pressure due to the weight of the baby. Hormonal changes are also a major influence in causing pelvic girdle pain since they soften the ligaments that support the pelvis.

Physiotherapy during pregnancy also helps to reduce the likelihood of:

  • birth trauma
  • urinary incontinence during pregnancy and after birth — up to 67% of pregnant women will leak urine (incontinence) when they laugh, sneeze, cough or exercise
  • lower back pain — around 50% of pregnant women experience low back pain
  • pelvic floor dysfunction, including incontinence, sexual dysfunction and prolapse
  • birth complications

You may see a physiotherapist during your pregnancy to prevent issues or treat new conditions. There can also be benefits in learning about helpful labour and birth positions. Some positions during pregnancy can be helpful to move a baby into the right position for labour and birth.

Why might I need physiotherapy after having a baby?

Being pregnant and having a baby can affect your body in many ways.

Your muscles have stretched, and your ligaments will have softened, especially those in your abdomen and pelvic floor. It can also increase your chance of bladder and bowel problems.

Physiotherapy after you’ve had your baby can help you regain your strength and fitness, and help you if you are having any of the following issues:

Physiotherapy can also assist you in a safe return to exercise and playing sport after having a baby.

Recovering After A Vaginal Birth from the Australasian Birth Trauma Association.

What are some common physiotherapy techniques?

When you first see a physiotherapist, they will ask you about any health issues you may have. They may use a range of techniques and recommend exercises to help improve your movement and reduce discomfort. Generally, a series of appointments is necessary to help develop a treatment plan and to review its effectiveness.

It can take time to feel the benefits of physiotherapy treatment, and you may be advised to do exercises at home.

Common physiotherapy techniques include:

  • massage or ultrasound to parts of the body
  • manipulation of certain joints
  • stretching muscles — commonly side and forward stretches, a 'cat' stretch and pelvic circles
  • being guided on different ways to move which won't aggravate an existing problem
  • exercise recommendations
  • advise around wearing a supportive belt or compression pants

How will I know if I need physiotherapy?

You may not know if seeing a physiotherapist will be helpful. Many women just accept that a certain amount of discomfort is normal during pregnancy and after you’ve had a baby. However, a tailored exercise plan can often help to reduce a range of symptoms and improve a woman’s comfort and mobility.

You may feel changes in the strength of your pelvic floor and can't 'hold on' to your urine (wee) when you're pregnant. Having an intensive, supervised pelvic floor exercise program helps to reduce the likelihood of leaking urine, both before and after having a baby.

A common condition of pregnancy, but which is less well known, is carpal tunnel syndrome. This is caused by an increase in fluid levels which create extra pressure on the median nerve supplying the wrist and fingers. Symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome include tingling or numbness in the fingers or hand, swelling and weakness, making it hard to grip onto things. Physiotherapy treatments for carpal tunnel syndrome include splints, resting and avoiding hand movements and median nerve and tendon stretches.

Physiotherapy is not just beneficial during pregnancy. Pelvic floor exercises are recommended for women of all ages, particularly when pregnant and after birth.

It’s very common for women to experience strain on their back during and after pregnancy. A physiotherapist can guide you on how to maintain a good standing and sitting posture.

Another common pregnancy complication is the widening of the abdominal muscles, called diastasis. Around 66% to 100% of women will experience this change and notice a gap down the centre of their tummy when they move or get up from a lying down position. Abdominal muscle exercises can help to build muscle tone and restore core strength.

Are there any risks to having physiotherapy during pregnancy?

There are generally no risks in seeing a qualified and registered physiotherapist. Sometimes, there is a temporary increase in muscle discomfort after massage and focused movements. Your physiotherapist will advise you on what to expect and ways to manage any discomfort.

How do I find a physiotherapist?

Your maternity care provider will be able to refer you to a physiotherapist, or you can go to one yourself. You don’t need to have a doctor’s referral to see one. Most maternity hospitals have a physiotherapy department and many also run antenatal classes.

Medicare covers the cost of seeing a physiotherapist based at a public hospital. You will need to pay to see a private physiotherapist, though you may be eligible for a rebate if you have private health insurance.

You can find a physiotherapist online through the Service Finder.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

Resources and support

Read more about physiotherapy after childbirth from King Edward Memorial Hospital.

Visit the Continence Foundation of Australia website for more information and resources on pelvic floor and incontinence. You can also contact the National Continence Helpline for information and advice.

You can find out more about pelvic floor strength on the Jean Hailes website.

Looking for information for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people?

Read more about postnatal physiotherapy information for Aboriginal women from King Edward Memorial Hospital.

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: May 2024

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Need more information?

Women’s health - Pre and post natal - Choose physio | Australian Physiotherapy Association | Australian Physiotherapy Association

Pregnancy and post-natal (post-baby) issues commonly include pain in the low back, hips, groin and hands, as well as pelvic floor problems such as incontinence and prolapse.

Read more on Australian Physiotherapy Association website

Pregnancy and exercise - Better Health Channel

Unless you have complications, you should be able to exercise throughout your pregnancy.

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What you should know about your pelvic floor: pre-pregnancy, during pregnancy and after giving birth | Queensland Health

Learn why you pelvic floor is important before and during pregnancy and after giving birth, with advice from a pelvic floor physiotherapist on how and why to strengthen your pelvic floor.

Read more on Queensland Health website

What to expect when seeing a women’s pelvic health/continence physiotherapist | Continence Foundation of Australia

What to expect when seeing a women’s pelvic health/continence physiotherapist. The Australian Physiotherapy Association’s women’s health physiotherapist Jenny Phillips tells us what to expect when seeking help from a physio for incontinence problems.

Read more on Continence Foundation of Australia website

Pelvic pain in pregnancy

Some women develop pelvic pain in pregnancy. This is sometimes called pelvic girdle pain (PGP) in pregnancy or symphysis pubis dysfunction (SPD).

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby website

8 benefits of seeing a pelvic health physiotherapist in pregnancy - Birth Trauma

Seeing a pelvic health physiotherapist during pregnancy can help with pregnancy discomfort, birth preparations, preparing for postnatal recovery and much more....

Read more on Australasian Birth Trauma Association website

Safe return to exercise after pregnancy

Exercise can help you recover after childbirth, make you stronger and improve mood. Here are some tips on how to exercise safely after a pregnancy.

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Pregnancy - signs and symptoms - Better Health Channel

All women experience pregnancy differently, and you will experience different symptoms at different stages of your pregnancy.

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Carpal tunnel syndrome and pregnancy

Carpal tunnel syndrome is a condition some women may experience during pregnancy. Learn more about carpal tunnel syndrome and how to treat it.

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How endometriosis affects pregnancy

Women with endometriosis can have trouble falling pregnant. Find out more about endometriosis, how it can affect fertility, and the treatment options.

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