When starting your recovery journey, you may find yourself overwhelmed by new words you have never heard before. From terms that describe movement to exercise concepts, it’s important to have a solid working definition so that you can fully understand your plan of care. We’ve put together our top list of terms that are used clinically for you to reference as needed. Also, if there is ever a word you don’t understand make sure to speak up and ask your PT - they’d be more than happy to explain!
General PT Terms and Definitions
Orthopedic: a specialty that focuses on treating disorders of the musculoskeletal system which is primarily made up of bones, muscles, ligaments, and joints.
Neurologic: a specialty that focuses on treating disorders of the nervous system (the brain, nerves, spinal cord, and more).
Movements & Positions
Range of Motion: the ability of a joint to move over a given distance (measured in degrees) and in a particular direction (ex: flexion or extension).
Passive Range of Motion: when a PT or special device moves your joints or limbs for you without your effort or help.
Active Assisted Range of Motion: when you contract your muscles along with a PT or device that is also assisting with the movement.
Active Range of Motion: when you move your joints without help from anyone or anything.
Extension: straightening or “unbending” of a body part, such as when you straighten your elbow and rest your arm at your side (clinically, extension increases the joint angle measured between two bones).
Flexion: “bending” of a body part, such as lifting your hand to your mouth by bending at the elbow joint (clinically, flexion decreases the joint angle measured between two bones).
Abduction (Away): movement of a limb out to the side, away from the body, specifically away from midline (ex: like making a snow angel).
Adduction (Toward): movement of a limb towards the body, specifically towards midline.
Internal rotation: rotation of a joint in the direction towards the body (ex: reaching your hands into your back pants pocket or folding your arms across your chest is done by internally rotating at the shoulder joints).
External rotation: rotation of a joint in the direction away from the body (ex: raising your arms in the shape of a football goal post or bringing your hands out to the side to hold a jump rope is done by externally rotating at the shoulder joints).
Hypermobility: the ability of a joint to move beyond the typical range or demonstrate excessive motion.
Hypomobility: a decrease in the ability of a joint to move within its typical range (ex: when a muscle is too tight, structural changes such as with arthritis, or other joint restrictions that don’t allow typical movement to occur).
Supine: laying on your back (face up).
Prone: laying on your stomach (face down).
Hook Lying: laying on your back with your knees bent and feet flat.
Muscle Strengthening & Flexibility
Isometric: an exercise typically used to retrain the muscle after surgery or in an effort to limit movement that is performed by contracting the muscle while holding still or pressing against something stable, such as a wall or table (ex: quad set, glute set).
Concentric: when a muscle contracts while it is shortening (ex: performing a bicep curl causes the bicep muscle to shorten and you can see the muscle bulge as a result of shortening).
Eccentric: when a muscle contracts while it is lengthening, typically to control movement with the force of gravity (ex: the lowering phase of a bicep curl, or the step down phase of going down stairs).
Progressive Overload: gradually increasing the weight, repetitions, volume, or intensity of your workout so that your muscles adapt and increase in strength/endurance capabilities.
Muscle Flexibility: how limber, or free a muscle is to move allowing joints the ability to move throughout their typical range of motion unrestricted.
Muscle Tone: typically most relevant with patients who have neurological diagnoses, the amount of tension on a muscle or its resistance to movement
Increased Tone: increased resistance to movement that can result in stiffness and difficulty moving through a full range of motion.
Decreased Tone: decreased resistance to movement that can result in decreased joint stability and muscle atrophy/loss of strength.
Gait & Balance
Gait: the way in which you walk.
Balance: the ability to maintain your body, specifically your center of mass, within your base of support.
Base of Support: where your body makes contact with the surface below you (ex: your feet on the ground).
Motor Control: how you initiate, facilitate, and control intentional movement (involves how the nervous system and the musculoskeletal system work together to create purposeful movement).
Instability: often used when describing an unsteady gait or when referring to balance; refers to difficulty in maintaining balance, coordination, or control of the body that may result in falls.
Weight Shifting: transferring your weight from one side of your body to the other (can be side to side, forward and backward, diagonal).
Surgical Precautions: rules to follow after a given surgery to protect the surgical site and allow for proper healing (ex: posterior hip precautions involve not hip flexion past 90 degrees to prevent dislocation of the new hip prosthesis).
Rehab Protocol: a specific timeline that outlines the appropriate progression of movement and exercises typically after a given surgery or injury for safe and optimal recovery.
Weight Bearing: accepting body weight through your extremities (can be legs or arms depending on the position but most commonly refers to standing positions).
Weight Bearing Status: the amount of body weight you are allowed to bear through a given body part (typically your legs) after a surgery.
Non-weight Bearing: you are not allowed to put any weight on a given extremity (ex: if your right leg is non weight bearing you cannot stand on it or ambulate without the use of an assistive device to keep the leg hovering above the ground).
Partial Weight Bearing: a specified amount of weight you are allowed to bear through an extremity that is not full weight bearing (ex: 50% weight bearing indicates you are only allowed to bear half of your body weight through the injured extremity, often using an assistive device to help offload the weight).
Weight Bearing As Tolerated: you are allowed to bear weight through a given extremity as much as you are able to tolerate without specific restriction.
Ligament: tissue that connects a bone to another bone.
Tendon: tissue that connects a muscle to a bone.
Joint: where two or more bones meet in the body and where movement occurs.
Sprain: an injury to a ligament.
Strain: an injury to a muscle or muscle tendon.
Vertebrae: the bones that make up the spinal column and run vertically down the back.
Cervical Spine: the part of your spine that makes up your neck and consists of 7 cervical vertebrae.
Thoracic Spine: the part of your spine that makes up your upper back and consists of 12 thoracic vertebrae.
Lumbar Spine: the part of your spine that makes up your lower back and consists of 5 lumbar vertebrae.
Kyphosis: an outward curve of the spine (excessive kyphosis results in an excessively round upper back).
Lordosis: an inward curve of the spine (see the above image and note the cervical and lumbar spine both demonstrate lordosis).
Scoliosis: when the spine curves in a sideways direction.
Feel free to refer to this list whenever you come across a physical therapy term you’re unsure of. Want to learn more? Download the OneStep Digital Physical Therapy app to consult with a licensed physical therapist who can not only walk you through all the lingo, but get you started on your recovery or wellness journey today right from your own home using just your phone.
Merriam-Webster, 2022. Accessed February 8, 2022.