Physical Therapist (PT) Career Guide

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Physical Therapist (PT)

What Is a Physical Therapist?

A Physical Therapist (PT) is a movement expert who collaborates with patients during their recovery from surgery, injury, or in managing physical disabilities. PTs focus on helping patients regain mobility through strength, stretching, and manual therapy techniques.

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Physical Therapist Assistants (PTAs) work under the direction of PTs to implement treatment plans. They play a key role in assisting patients with exercises, mobility training, and other therapeutic interventions.

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What Does a Physical Therapist Do?

Physical therapy, involving both PTs and PTAs, can be corrective and preventative. PTs start with a physical examination to assess a patient’s condition. They develop rehabilitation plans to restore functionality, while PTAs assist in executing these plans, providing hands-on therapy and guiding patients through exercises.

Everyday tasks of a physical therapy practitioner:

  • Observing and assessing patient movement.
  • Assisting patients with therapeutic exercises and using aids like crutches or walkers.
  • Documenting medical records and progress.
  • Developing and implementing individual rehabilitation plans, with PTAs providing direct therapy as per these plans.
  • Educating patients and assisting them with supportive devices.

Depending on the setting a physical therapy practitioner works in, their daily interactions and duties with patients may differ. For example, a PT working solely in a hospital may only meet with patients once or twice after surgery, whereas a PT in private practice may see the same patients weekly as they assist them on their entire rehabilitation journey.

How Do You Become a Physical Therapist?

For PTs:

  • Earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree (DPT) from a recognized DPT program, which typically takes three years post-bachelor’s degree.
  • Pass the National Physical Therapy Exam for licensure.

For PTAs:

  • Complete an accredited Physical Therapist Assistant associate degree program.
  • Pass the National Physical Therapy Exam for assistants.

FAQs About Physical Therapists

What skills does a Physical Therapist need?

Successful PTs and PTAs need:

Good communication and interpersonal skills: Working with patients who are disabled or injured can be challenging. PTs will need to be able to efficiently explain exercises and treatment plans while also being encouraging as the process can be difficult for some patients.

Detail-orientated: Monitoring and documenting progress is important to creating successful rehabilitation plans.

Flexibility and problem-solving skills: Each patient’s needs will be different, and being able to adapt and adjust treatment plans is critical to your patient’s success and recovery.

Strong working knowledge of the muscular-skeletal system and a holistic approach to health.

Work Settings For a Physical Therapist

PTs and PTAs work in various settings, including hospitals, schools, private practices, and rehabilitation clinics. They cater to patients of all ages and deal with various conditions, from sports injuries to post-operative care.

Common Cases a Physical Therapist Encounters

PTs and PTAs commonly assist patients with:

  • Soft tissue injuries.
  • Neck and back pain.
  • Work-related injuries.
  • Muscular dystrophy.
  • Joint replacements.
  • Issues with range of motion and balance.

How To Advance Your Career as a Physical Therapist?

PTs can specialize by obtaining certifications in areas like orthopedics or neurology. PTAs can advance by gaining experience and pursuing specialized training or certifications in specific therapy techniques through the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties.

Education Requirements & Helpful Certifications for a Physical Therapist

To practice as a PT, a DPT degree from a CAPTE-accredited program is required, covering extensive healthcare topics. PT students also complete significant clinical experience.

PTAs need an associate degree in physical therapy assistance, including both coursework and practical training.

Both PTs and PTAs must pass their respective National Physical Therapy Exam for licensure. Be sure to check out our state-by-state PT licensure guide so that you're ready to practice, no matter where life takes you!

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