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Functional Physical Therapy Goals - Must-Have Considerations

Functional Physical Therapy Goals - Must-Have Considerations

Updated June 9, 2021 Originally published February 10, 2016
Danny Sanchez, PT, CEAS


Many people who require physical therapy are victims of an accident or a stroke. For them, functional physical therapy is designed to improve a broad range “lifestyle” capabilities. When it comes to injured workers, though, functional physical therapy goals must be job-related. The overall goal is returning to work.

To construct effective functional physical therapy goals, you must consider the following factors:


Physical therapists create goals for injured workers based on the type and severity of the injury. For example, the worker must be able to flex or rotate their wrist, knee or shoulder to a particular angle. Goals may identify strength or balance measurements. But goals based on metrics alone may not be motivating to injured workers. They may not seem relevant.

Functional physical therapy goals that relate directly to the person’s job are immediately meaningful. The injured worker can see the “why” behind each treatment component. They can see how each session brings them closer to returning to work. And they can see how recovering will improve their off-work capabilities, too. This helps workers relate to their PT goals. They will be even more inspired to comply with their treatment plan. 

The physical therapist needs to understand what that particular employee does at work or see the injured worker’s job description. Better yet, the therapist should have the opportunity to visualize what that particular employee needs to do in their job. That way they will know what functions the worker must perform. The more detailed and accurate the job description, the more helpful it is. Many employers use post-offer employment testing (POET) in their hiring protocol. This gives the therapist a pre-injury baseline for their patient. That way they can identify pre-existing conditions that might affect recovery (or recovery goals). 


Everyone in the workers’ comp claims loop needs to know when the injured worker has recovered. Explain each goal in the treatment plan in everyday language, not just medical jargon. That will make the goals easy to understand for all stakeholders, not just the therapist. 


Each goal must be specific and measurable. Recovery progress must be verifiable. Can the injured worker now perform the essential positions and movements of their job? Measurable goals can define “recovery” accomplishments as:

  • Improved mobility, strength, posture, physical or positional tolerance
  • How often a task can be performed: occasional, frequent or constant
  • For how long can a specific task be sustained


The goal isn’t for injured workers to get better someday. Employers need their people back on the job as soon as possible. That’s their desire, too. Functional physical therapy goals always set a target end date.

Ideally, the injured worker will return to their pre-injury job full time. Reaching this goal may be an incremental process. The worker may return to their pre-injury job part-time, on light or modified duty. As they continue to recover, they are able to work more hours or perform more tasks.

Sometimes an employee may need special accommodations to return to their pre-injury job. Accommodations may alter job duties or physical aspects of the worksite. If reasonable accommodations aren’t possible, the worker may be able to return to a different job within the company.

How can you establish reasonable functional physical therapy goals for your injured workers? In our next article, we’ll look at putting these considerations to work.

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