Do You Need a Referral for Physical Therapy? Common Myths

Physical therapy is a valuable healthcare service that can decrease your healthcare costs significantly and aid in the rehabilitation and improvement of various musculoskeletal conditions, injuries, and mobility issues. However, we often get questions from patients about whether they actually need a referral for physical therapy.

This is especially true among patients who have heard the term “direct access” in regards to physical therapy. The short answer is this:

In most cases, direct access laws allow you to seek physical therapy without a referral. The only exceptions to this would be cases where a specific insurance provider requires a prescription. The simplest way to determine your eligibility for direct access would be to call the physical therapy provider of your choice and ask them if they would provide direct access physical therapy in your case.

In this article, we’ll discuss the difference between referrals vs prescriptions, and how to determine whether you actually need a referral or prescription in your particular case.

Understanding the role of referrals

A referral is essentially a recommendation from a healthcare provider that suggests a patient should seek specialized care or services from another medical professional. In the context of physical therapy treatment, referrals are typically made by primary care doctors, orthopedic surgeons, chiropractors, and other healthcare practitioners who recognize the need for expert rehabilitation.

The myth: mandatory referrals

One of the common misconceptions is that a referral is always mandatory before being evaluated and treated by a licensed physical therapist. This myth exists largely because for many years, it was required. However, this is not the case anymore.

While referrals can be beneficial, especially in cases of complex conditions or post-surgery recovery, they are not always obligatory. Direct access laws, which vary by state, have been enacted to allow patients direct access to physical therapy without a physician referral.

Do you need a prescription for physical therapy?

In addition to referrals, patients often ask us if they need a script for physical therapy. This confusion is understandable, as the terms are often used interchangeably, even though they don’t mean the same thing. Let’s start by defining the difference between a prescription and a referral:

A prescription is a written directive from a healthcare provider that outlines the specific treatments or interventions a patient should receive, whereas a referral is a healthcare provider’s direction to their patient to seek physical therapy. The prescription is simply the written instructions from the healthcare provider to the physical therapist themselves.

Therefore, the distinction between a prescription and a referral lies in their purposes and scopes. When it comes to physical therapy, prescriptions can play a significant role in guiding the therapist’s approach to treatment, though they are also not required in direct access situations.

What does direct access mean?

Direct access allows patients to visit a physical therapist without obtaining a referral from another healthcare professional. This is particularly useful for individuals seeking immediate care, those who are trying to manage chronic pain, or anyone aiming to prevent a minor injury from escalating.

However, the extent of direct access varies, with some states allowing full unrestricted access to physical therapy, while others may have limitations on the number of sessions or specific conditions that can be treated without a referral.

Here in Arizona, we’ve had direct access available to physical therapy since 2003.

Benefits of direct access physical therapy

Though we always recommend our patients to discuss their healthcare journey with their primary care providers (or any specialists they happen to be working with), we also see many benefits in regards to direct access care:

Faster Treatment: Direct access enables patients to initiate treatment sooner, potentially leading to faster recovery and better outcomes.

Cost-Effective: The cost of physical therapy is generally lower than other treatment options overall, but skipping the referral process can save you time and money by avoiding unnecessary appointments.

Holistic Care: Physical therapists are trained to assess not only the physical aspects but also the overall well-being of the patient, providing a more holistic approach to treatment.

Preventive Measures: Direct access allows individuals to seek guidance on injury prevention, exercise routines, and ergonomic adjustments before an issue worsens.

Exceptions to the rule

While direct access laws have made it easier for patients to access physical therapy, there are instances where a referral is highly recommended or even necessary:

Complex Cases: In situations involving complex medical histories, surgeries, or serious injuries, a referral can ensure a thorough understanding of the patient’s condition.

Insurance Coverage: Some insurance providers may require a referral to cover physical therapy services, so we recommend verifying your policy’s requirements.

Specialist Involvement: In cases where the patient’s condition requires a multidisciplinary approach, a referral can facilitate communication between different healthcare providers.

How to determine if you need a referral for physical therapy or not

Since Arizona is a direct access state, patients that live within our state should have the ability to seek direct access care most of the time. However, the simplest way to determine if you qualify for direct access care is to give us a call. We would be happy to discuss your particular situation, as well as verify your insurance and get back to you with their specific requirements in advance.

If you decide you would really like to see one of our providers in particular, talk to us about out-of-network physical therapy or private pay physical therapy; we should be able to work something out.

Regardless of whether or not you have a referral, we will consult with your healthcare provider and provide them with all the same written updates, notes, etc. regarding your progress.


The need for a referral to access physical therapy services depends on various factors, including your location, the severity of your condition, and your insurance coverage. While direct access laws have expanded patients’ ability to seek physical therapy independently, referrals can still play a crucial role in ensuring comprehensive care, particularly in complex cases.

Regardless of whether or not you decide to seek a referral, it can be a good idea to consult with your healthcare provider via phone call regardless. The goal remains the same: to enhance your physical well-being and improve your quality of life through effective rehabilitation.

Quick Pay for Patients

For security purposes, please prove that you are human before proceeding!