Physiotherapy treatment terms explained

During a physiotherapy treatment session, terminology may be used that although best describes the condition or course of action, may sound more like a foreign language. Most physiotherapists will try their best to avoid such terms as they can be confusing, instead providing descriptions that are easier to understand. However sometimes technical terms have their place.

Common physiotherapy treatment terms to reference

If any of this physiotherapy treatment lingo is used in a consultation, and the definition does not come to mind, it is easy enough to ask for clarification. Also there are plenty of options to search for these physiotherapy treatment terms online, yet it may make life easier to have this short list at hand.

Acute and Sub-Acute

A classification for a short term injury or condition from when it occurs up until four to six weeks, in contrast to a subacute injury between six to twelve weeks, and a chronic injury that is longer than twelve weeks.


Movement of a limb or part away from the midline of the body or from another body part.

Anterior Cruciate Ligament

Known simply as the ACL, this ligament lies deep within the knee joint, and connects the thigh bone to the shin bone. The bones of the leg undergo a variety of movements when in motion, during which the ACL provides backward, forward and rotational stability to the knee.


A thin, slippery, fluid filled sack that decreases the friction between two surfaces of a joint. Bursitis is the inflammation of the bursa, turing a normally smooth movement into one of friction, that can become irritating and painful.

Cervical spine

The neck, made up of seven cervical vertebra, starting immediately below the skull it extends downward to the thoracic spine. The top two vertebra are different to allow head and neck rotation, along with forwards and backward movement.


A classification for a long term injury or condition, that has persisted for longer than twelve weeks, and usually the result of overuse of one area of the body, an unresolved injury or condition.


Being the remnant of a tail, it is commonly referred to as the tailbone. The final and lowest segment of the vertebral column that makes up the spine, it consists of roughly four segments that are fused or semi fused. One of the bones that bears weight whilst sitting, it also anchors several muscles to the pelvic region.


Permanent shortening or stiffening of skin, muscle tissue, tendons, ligaments or joint capsules that decreases movement and range of motion.


Commonly known as a bruise, this is an area of injured skin or tissue where there has been a rupture of the blood capillaries.

Core stability

A muscular corset known as the ‘core’ surrounding the lower back and abdomen. Stability of this region provides a solid base for movement, carrying loads and muscular support to the spine, pelvis and trunk region.

Core strength

A cornerstone of clinical pilates, it can improve postural control and provide power with stability, whilst reducing the risk of injury.


An abnormal separation in the joint where two bones meet, potentially causing damage to the joint capsule, nerves, ligaments and soft tissue.


An abnormal accumulation of fluid in or around a joint, such as a knee, causing swelling.


The process of turning a body part outwards. For example an eversion ankle sprain, when the sole of the foot moves outwards while the ankle rolls too far inwards, causing injury. Inversion is the opposite, where a body part turns inwards.


A movement that usually results in the straightening of a body part, as such an extensor is a muscle whose contraction causes an extension movement.


A fibrous sheath or band of connective tissue that attaches, stabilises, encloses, and separates muscle tissues and organs.


The bending of a joint, and as such a flexor is a muscle that produces this movement.

Intervertebral disc

Circular fibrocartilage plates of the spine, they act as shock absorbers for the vertebrae that they separate.


Structures furthest from the mid line of the body, for example the arms are lateral to the toro, in other words to the outside.


A tough fibrous band of connective tissue that connect bones to other bones. They provide stability to joints, acting as passive restraint to avoid excessive movement. When a ligament is injured it is called a sprain.

Lumbar Spine

The lower back, made up of five lumbar vertebra, is the part of the spine between the rib cage and the pelvis, connecting to the thoracic spine at the top and the sacrum below.


Structures nearest to the mid line of the body, for example the torso is medial to the arms, in other words closer to the middle.


A thin semi circular fibrous cartilage between the surfaces of some joins, for example the knee, functioning as a smooth surface for the joint to move on and as a shock absorber.


A group of five bones between the ankle region and the toes, a common area that sustains trauma injury in soccer.

Motor skills

The body’s ability to perform complex muscle and nerve actions that produce co-ordinated movement. Tying shoes or opening a bottle cap are examples of fine motor skills, where movement is initiated by smaller muscles. Movements like walking and running involve Gross Motor Skills and are performed by larger muscles.


Uses chemical and electrical signals to transmit motor and sensory information via impulses between the central nervous system and other parts of the body.

Patellofemoral joint

The patella is the knee cap, and the patellofemoral joint is between the back of the knee cap and the thigh bone.

Plantar Fascia

A thick, flat ligament on the sole of the foot, that connects the heel bone to the toes. Plantar Fasciitis or heel pain is the inflammation of this region.


A natural movement of the foot, referring to the way the foot rolls inwards to distribute impact upon landing whilst walking or running. Lower limb and back problems can be caused by supination (underpronation) or overpronation.


Structures situated at the back of the body, for example Posterior Cruciate Ligament.


The awareness of the position of one’s body, and its movement within surrounding space, allowing one to control their limbs without looking at them.


Consisting of five vertebra at the base of the spine, these fuse together naturally in adulthood to form a single wedge shaped bone. The lumbar spine continues above this sacral region and its is connected to the coccyx below.


An anatomical movement and the opposite of pronation, referring to the turning of the palm of the hand upwards, or the outward roll of the foot during normal motion.


A flexible and fibrous connective tissue that attaches muscle to bone and other structures such as the eyeball. Disfunction of this tissue leads to Tendinopathy and inflammation to Tendonitis.

Thoracic spine

The upper back, starting in middle of the spine, as a continuance of the lumbar spine below and moving upwards connects to the cervical spine of the neck above. Made up of twelve vertebra, it forms part of the thoracic cage along with with the sternum and ribs, to protect vital internal organs such as the heart, lungs and oesophagus.


The shin bone which is the larger and stronger of the two bones in the leg below the knee.

Vertebral column

Otherwise known as the backbone or spine, it is made up of a series of thirty three segmented bones called vertebrae, which are separated by intervertebral discs.

Techniques, devices and some commonly treated conditions

Whilst the list above covers most terminology encountered in a physiotherapy treatment session, these may also be helpful in understanding the conditions physiotherapist treat, techniques used and resources available, as part of the overall treatment management.


Commonly known as keyhole surgery, it is a minimally invasive surgical procedure, whereby a minute camera is inserted into a joint through a small incision to evaluate and treat cartilage or ligaments of a joint such as the shoulder,knee, ankle, foot, wrist, elbow or hip.

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

A painful condition of the hand caused by pressure on the median nerve that runs through the carpal tunnel of the wrist, with the cause being swelling due to pregnancy, arthritis or repetitive hand movements.

CT Scan

A Computed Tomography scan uses digital computer technology and x-rays to shows detailed images of a persons anatomy, including bone, blood vessels and soft tissue.


A solid, localised swelling of clotted blood that has leaked into the tissues due to trauma, disease or surgery.

Impingement syndrome

When the tendons of the rotator cuff muscles become irritated and inflamed as it passes through a passage in the shoulder.

ITB Syndrome

Iliotibial Band Friction Syndrome is an overuse condition commonly known as ‘runners knee’ where this ‘band’ or large fibrous sheath on the outside of the knee, rubs against the outside of the knee joint, at the widest part of the thigh bone.

Joint Mobilisation

A physiotherapy treatment technique used to restore a normal range of joint motion so as to lessen stiffness and pain.


An exaggerated rounding of the back often due to compression caused by osteoporosis weakening the spinal bones.


A passive physiotherapy treatment technique performed by a physiotherapist involving a short, high velocity movement of a joint towards the end of its range of movement.

MRI Scan

A Magnetic Resonance Imaging scan does not involve x-rays, instead MRI uses strong magnets and radio frequency pulses from which a computerised image of the scanned body section is produced. Compared to a CT scan, MRI scans take longer, are louder and the patient is required to go into a narrow tube.


A synthetic rubber polymer worn on various parts of the body to provide protection, support and heat, through thermal properties, to joints and muscles.


The most common chronic condition of the joints, this degenerative joint disease is caused by repeated overuse and other factors such as past injury and obesity.


A bone disease where decreased bone mineral density increases the risk of broken bones, with the most common risk factor being advanced age.

Patellofemoral Maltracking

When the patella or knee moves outside its normal path whilst bending and straightening, placing abnormal stresses on the underside of the knee cap, in turn causing pain.

Resistance bands

Resistance bands, stretch tubes and stretch bands are exercise bands that come in a variety of colours, which correspond with their strength or resistance, and are used for anything from strength and resistance training, to stretching and rehabilitation purposes.


Stands for Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation and is used in the physiotherapy treatment of acute soft tissue injuries such as sprains and strains.


Pain felt along the sciatic nerve that travels from the lower back, behind the thigh and radiates below the knee.


A stretched or torn ligament, mostly to the ankle and wrist.


This is a partial dislocation of a joint, as opposed to the joint surfaces completely losing contact in dislocation, and most often occurs after an acute injury to the joint.

Tennis Elbow

A condition in which the outer part of the elbow becomes sore and tender caused by inflammation of the tendons on the outside of the elbow at a bony prominence (lateral epicondyle).

TENS machine

This stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve stimulation. Used as an alternative to painkilling medication in physiotherapy treatment, this machine instead aims to relieve pain by stimulating nerve endings with electrical impulses.

Triaxial Hinge

Worn as a hinged knee brace, it features a hinge that tracks a knee’s natural movement and provides medial-lateral support of a weak or injured knee.


Diagnostically ultrasound is used in physiotherapy treatment to produce an image of muscles and tendons to assist in the identification of soft tissue injuries. Therapeutic ultrasound uses mechanical sound energy at a frequency of more than 20,000Hz to treat soft tissue injuries.