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What is Physical Therapy?
Physical therapy is the process used to provide assistance to individuals suffering from motor problem incurred by accident, surgery, or from other sources. Therapists are responsible for tracking and updating programs based on the progress of a given patient, working closely to ensure that goals are met. Additionally, physical therapists will work with patients and families to provide education regarding treatment and how to facilitate recovery through exercises and practices in the home. Physical therapists may work in hospitals and clinics or have their own practices and facilities. Physical therapists will also work with other healthcare professionals to develop and implement treatments.
PT’s will assess and manage plans of care for patients through a series of evaluations, examinations, and data. As evidence-based health care practitioners, they work to understand each patient as an individual and design a unique recovery plan for every person. Whether they are helping a person recover from an serious injury to assisting a patient increase mobility and strength leading up to a big race, a physical therapist can wear many hats.
Treatments Provided By a Physical Therapist
A physical therapist will help patients with wellness, fitness, rehabilitation, injury prevention, and overall health promotion to optimize health and well-being. The list below will provide greater insight into the areas a physical therapist can help others that include chronic pain relief to sports injuries and everything in between. The top ailments a physical therapist can help others include assistance with:
- Back and neck pain
- Joint injuries, including to knee and ankle
- Brain injury
- Cerebral palsy
- Fractures and multiple trauma
- Chronic pain
- Parkinson’s disease
- Fall risk and balance issues
- Cancer-related complications
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Spinal cord injuries and birth defects
- Post-operative rehabilitation
- Rotator cuff injuries
- Sports injuries
- Cystic fibrosis
- Multiple sclerosis
- Muscle strains
- Pelvic pain
- Plantar fasciitis
Difference Between Physical Therapist and Physical Therapy Assistants?
The difference between a physical therapy assistant and physical therapist comes down to education, training, body of knowledge, and job responsibilities. A physical therapy assistant is required to earn a degree or certificate of completion from an accredited college or university which will take 1-2 years of full-time matriculation to complete. On the other hand, a physical therapist will need to earn an advanced degree in physical therapy which takes 6-7 years to complete depending on the program and number of classes taken. In addition to the educational requirements, physical therapists have an intensive clinical clerkship along with far greater job responsibilities and state licensure requirements.
What Degree Options Exist for a Physical Therapist
There are basically three different degree types to choose from when considering a vocation as a physical therapist. The degree programs include a DPT, PTA to DPT Bridge Program, and a MSHP.
- DPT – The Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program is the gold-standard for physical therapists around the country and come in two flavors: Direct Entry DPT and Post-Professional DPT. The Direct Entry DPT is an all-in-one program or 3x3 program whereby students spend three years on undergraduate, pre-professional curriculum and the last 3 years on graduate-level curriculum. The Post-Professional DPT, on the other hand, is a program designed for physical therapy professionals with a master’s degree in physical therapy or bachelor’s degree in physical therapy.
- PTA to DPT – The PTA to DPT Bridge program is a degree program designed for Physical Therapy Assistants (PTA) to become a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT). Many colleges and universities offer online and on-site bridge programs to help mesh the degree program into a busy work schedule during the didactic portion of the program.
- MSHP – The MSHP is a program that stands for Master of Science for Health Professionals, including a physical therapist. Classroom-based or online Master of Science for Health Professionals programs exist to help students and professionals in the field take advantage of career opportunities in applied practice, research, education, and management.
What Will I Learn in a Physical Therapy Degree Program?
Coursework for a physical therapy degree programs will vary from school to school, yet you will discover overall physical therapy programs have similar classes. After performing research into dozens of programs, a list of common classes are outlined below to help you better understand the content of a physical therapy degree program. A sample of classes you may find in a DPT may include:
- Musculoskeletal Anatomy
- Cellular & Systems Physiology
- Integrated Patient Management
- Lifespan Motor Control
- Therapeutic Interaction in Health Care
- Clinical Biomechanics
- Mechanics of Human Gait
- Therapeutic Exercise
- Principles of Disease
- Acute Care in Physical Therapy
- Orthopedic Therapy
- Clinical Clerkship
A degree in physical therapy prepares an individual with the skills and knowledge necessary to assist patients who have debilitating ailments. A physical therapist will assist by evaluating the patient and developing a plan to promote movement, remove pain and restore function to the injured area. A degree in physical therapy is usually issued at the master's and doctoral level, with pre-physical therapy programs offered at the associate and bachelor degree level. a master's program will typically take 3 years to complete. A physical therapy major will need to know various fundamental sciences along with developing communication and analytical skills, including the ability to identify and empathize with the mental state of their patients.
Courses offered in a physical therapy curriculum may include:
- Exercise Physiology
Schools Other Students Requested Information From:
Employment, Licensure and Certification
A physical therapist must work closely with patients, and will occasionally work with physicians, occupational therapists, and other medical professionals regarding the treatment plan for a given patient. Good listening skills and pleasant demeanor will go a long way in working with patients as well. Physical therapists will identify discrepancies and difficulties in motor function and develop a plan for rehabilitating the damaged or dysfunctional area. Over the course of treatment the rate and success of rehabilitation will be evaluated, and the process modified as needed to adjust and correct any errors. Licensure is required by most states and individuals pursuing a career in physical therapy should review their state's licensing requirements as they will vary by state, often requiring graduation from an accredited program, supervised work experience, an exam, or some combination of them.
Some physical therapists may choose to pursue certification in a specialty after a number of years of experience have been gained. Certification is awarded through the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS). To receive certification a physical therapist must take an exam in his or her desired specialty, the successful passing of which confers the certificate.
Specialties in physical therapy include:
- Cardiovascular and Pulmonary
- Clinical Electrophysiology
- Women's Health
Where to Physical Therapists Work?
Physical therapists can be employed in a wide number of settings across the country by public companies, private entities, and non-profit organizations. As such, PT’s can provide professional care for patients in the following arenas: private practices, rehabilitation centers, hospitals, medical centers, outpatient clinics, medical offices, skilled nursing facilities, long-term care centers, convalescent homes, community health organizations, schools, home health agencies, pediatric clinics, athletic facilities, and sports clinics.
Common Job Titles of a Physical Therapists
The job title of a physical therapy or PT’s is the most commonly used job title across the industry, a few noteworthy variations exist. To best prepare you for the job market ahead, a list of related job titles for a physical therapist are listed below. The most popular job titles for physical therapists include:
- Physical Therapist (PT)
- Chief Physical Therapist
- Home Care Physical Therapist
- Rehabilitation Services Director
- Pediatric Physical Therapist
- Staff Physical Therapist (Staff PT)
- Outpatient Physical Therapist
- Physical Therapist, Director of Rehabilitation
- Per Diem Physical Therapist
- Registered Physical Therapist (RPT)
Top Job Duties of a Physical Therapy
Job responsibilities for a physical therapist may vacillate from employer to employer but will generally fall into a few primary buckets. The U.S. Department of Labor recently completed a survey of Physical Therapists revealing a unique list of job duties. The top job responsibilities of a physical therapist include:
- Assess and document a patient’s initial examination, followed by data evaluation to identify problems and intervention solutions
- Manage and document a patient’s overall goals, milestones, and follow-up intervals
- Plan, manage, and execute treatment plans to improve or restore physical conditions or alleviate discomfort
- Document treatment plans and outcomes in a patient’s chart
- Determine efficacy of treatment plans at select intervals and adjust treatments to achieve maximum benefit
- Review a patient’s medications, test results, and notes from other health care providers
- Perform real-time tests to identify prospective and existing problems
- Design individualized plans of care based on their medical expertise, best available research, the patients’ unique situations and goals and the expected outcomes of the plans.
- Coach and educate patients and families members about treatment plans and expectations from therapy
- Develop patient discharge plans
States with the Highest Employment of Physical Therapists
- California 19,910
- New York 16,390
- Texas 14,910
- Florida 12,480
- Illinois 11,030
Top Paying States for Physical Therapists
- Nevada $120,820
- New Jersey $96,890
- California $95,350
- Texas $95,240
- Alaska $93,060
Job Growth, Salary and Related Fields
Jobs in physical therapy are expected to increase much faster than average over the next decade. This is due almost entirely due to the aging baby boomer population, which will require professional medical services, especially those of a physical therapist, as they will provide rehabilitative therapy for individuals in the range of high risk for cardiac arrest. Advancements in technology have allowed the treatment of previously deadly problems to be survivable, also increasing the need for physical therapist to assist in the rehabilitative process. Outpatient care has also been affected by technology, allowing for quicker recovery, and the use of physical therapists to assist in normalizing motion.
The average salary for a physical therapist is $85,400 with an expected job growth of an astounding 34% or nearly 5 times the national average. Education and experience play a large part in determining one's salary, as well as location. More densely populated areas will have a larger number of patients, resulting in more work and thus typically higher salaries. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, some 71,800 physical therapists are expected to enter the workforce in the coming decade.
Additional Resources for Physical Therapists
- American Physical Therapy Association (APTA)
- Orthopedic Section American Physical Therapy Association (OSAPTA)
- American Academy of Orthopedic Manual Physical Therapists (AAOMPT)
- Sports Physical Therapy Section (SPTS)
- American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (AAPMR)
- American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) Student Assembly
- American Society of Hand Therapists (ASHT)
- Academic Language Therapy Association (ALTA)
- American Academy of Physical Therapy (AAPT)
Individuals interested in physical therapy may also be interested in a career in art therapy, music therapy, dance therapy, or occupational therapy. For more information, check out our Physical Therapy Career Guide on our blog.