A physical therapist supporting the weight of a standing patient

A physical therapist could...

Help an elderly man learn how to walk again after a hip fracture, so he can remain independent in his home. A physical therapist prepares to grab a standing patient Teach exercises to a patient after knee surgery so he can strengthen the muscles around the repaired knee. A resistance band wrapped around the back of a knee
Show a young teen with scoliosis back exercises that will help strengthen her back and reduce the pain. An x-ray image of a spine that bows towards the right Train and encourage an amputee to return to her everyday activities using a prosthetic limb. A physical therapist attaching a prosthetic leg to a patient
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Key Facts & Information

Overview If you are injured in an accident, suffer a stroke, heart attack, or loss of a limb, or are born with conditions that make it difficult to move your body, then you will often be cared for by a physical therapist. Physical therapists review a patient's medical history, test and measure his or her physical condition (things like range of motion, strength, flexibility, balance, coordination, muscle function), and then develop a treatment plan to meet some physical goals. They coach, motivate, and educate the patient to follow the plan and work on therapies that will restore, maintain, or promote physical fitness and health. Physical therapists also act as advocates, bringing a patient's health needs to the attention of other workers on a patient's healthcare team, such as physicians, speech therapists, or respiratory therapists.
Key Requirements Ability to explain complex ideas in simple language, compassion and patience, outstanding interpersonal skills, and a desire to help people who are sick
Minimum Degree Professional Degree called a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT)
Subjects to Study in High School Biology, chemistry, physics, geometry, algebra II, pre-calculus, English; if available, physiology, biomedical science, foreign language
Median Salary
Physical Therapist
U.S. Mean Annual Wage
Min Wage
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024) Much Faster than Average (21% or more) In Demand!
  • Read this interview to meet Debbie Compton, a physical therapist who sees about 10 patients in a typical day, with ages varying from 2 to 102, and therapies ranging from helping a child who has motor delays learn how to walk, to helping a senior after hip surgery learn how to walk again.
  • Read this interview to meet Matthew Scherer, a physical therapist who works with amputees in the army, and who got his start in the military and the Peace Corps.
  • Read this interview to learn about a day in the life of physical therapist Sara Ochoa, who diagnoses and assesses orthopedic concerns, and then designs a treatment plan.
Related Occupations
Source: O*Net

Training, Other Qualifications

Individuals pursuing a career as a physical therapist usually need a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree from an accredited physical therapy program and a state license, requiring passing scores on national and state examinations.

Education and Training

Physical therapists first need to go to college and get a bachelor's degree. After college, students need to apply and be accepted into a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program. These professional degree programs are typically 3-4 years long and consist of both classes and time in clinics working with patients under the supervision of licensed physical therapists.

During college, most students interested in becoming physical therapists major in exercise science or another science field. It is possible to be accepted to a DPT program with a non-science major, but students choosing this route should at least take classes in anatomy, biology, chemistry, social science, mathematics, and physics in order to have good background knowledge for their physical therapy classes. Spending time observing physical therapists at work in different settings can be helpful, and even required by many schools, before applying to DPT programs. This list, maintained by the American Physical Therapy Association, is an easy way to see how many observation hours are required by each DPT program. Observation hours can be found by volunteering to help or shadow physical therapists working in a variety of settings including outpatient clinics, local hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, schools, and specialized athletic facilities.

After earning the DPT degree, graduates must pass national and state exams to get a license to work as a physical therapist. Requirements vary from state to state, but to maintain or renew their licenses, practicing physical therapists may need to take continuing education workshops and classes throughout their career.

Licensed physical therapists interested in specializing or gaining advanced skills and experience can go on to do a residency program, and even a paid fellowship after that. This is not necessary for most entry-level positions.

Other Qualifications

Physical therapists should have strong interpersonal skills so they can educate patients about their physical therapy treatments and communicate with patients' families. Physical therapists should also be compassionate and possess a desire to help patients.

Nature of the Work

Physical therapists provide services that help restore function, improve mobility, relieve pain, and prevent or limit permanent physical disabilities of patients suffering from injuries or disease. They restore, maintain, and promote overall fitness and health. Their patients include accident victims and individuals with disabling conditions, such as low-back pain, arthritis, heart disease, fractures, head injuries, and cerebral palsy.

Watch this video to see the amazing variety of people that physical therapists help—from children to the elderly, soldiers to athletes, heart attack or stroke victims to amputees.

Therapists examine patients' medical histories and then test and measure the patients' strength, range of motion, balance and coordination, posture, muscle performance, respiration, and motor function. Next, physical therapists develop plans describing a treatment strategy and its anticipated outcome.

Treatment often includes exercise, especially for patients who have been immobilized or who lack flexibility, strength, or endurance. Physical therapists encourage patients to use their muscles to increase their flexibility and range of motion. More-advanced exercises focus on improving strength, balance, coordination, and endurance. The goal is to improve how an individual functions at work and at home.

Physical therapists also use electrical stimulation, hot packs or cold compresses, and ultrasound to relieve pain and reduce swelling. They may use traction or deep-tissue massage to relieve pain and improve circulation and flexibility. Therapists also teach patients to use assistive and adaptive devices, such as crutches, prostheses, and wheelchairs. They also may show patients how to do exercises at home to expedite their recovery.

As treatment continues, physical therapists document the patient's progress, conduct periodic examinations, and modify treatments when necessary.

Physical therapists often consult and practice with a variety of other professionals, such as physicians, dentists, nurses, educators, social workers, occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, and audiologists.

Some physical therapists treat a wide range of ailments; others specialize in areas such as pediatrics, geriatrics, orthopedics, sports medicine, neurology, and cardiopulmonary physical therapy.

Work Environment

Physical therapists practice in hospitals, clinics, and private offices that have specially equipped facilities. They also treat patients in hospital rooms, homes, or schools. These jobs can be physically demanding because therapists often have to stoop, kneel, crouch, lift, and stand for long periods of time. In addition, physical therapists move heavy equipment and lift patients or help them turn, stand, or walk.

In 2006, most full-time physical therapists worked a 40-hour week; some worked evenings and weekends to fit their patients' schedules. About 1 in 5 physical therapists worked part-time.

On the Job

  • Perform and document an initial exam, evaluating data to identify problems and determine a diagnosis prior to intervention.
  • Plan, prepare and carry out individually designed programs of physical treatment to maintain, improve or restore physical functioning, alleviate pain and prevent physical dysfunction in patients.
  • Record prognosis, treatment, response, and progress in patient's chart or enter information into computer.
  • Identify and document goals, anticipated progress and plans for reevaluation.
  • Administer manual exercises, massage or traction to help relieve pain, increase patient strength, or decrease or prevent deformity or crippling.
  • Evaluate effects of treatment at various stages and adjust treatments to achieve maximum benefit.
  • Test and measure patient's strength, motor development and function, sensory perception, functional capacity, and respiratory and circulatory efficiency and record data.
  • Instruct patient and family in treatment procedures to be continued at home.
  • Confer with the patient, medical practitioners and appropriate others to plan, implement and assess the intervention program.
  • Review physician's referral and patient's medical records to help determine diagnosis and physical therapy treatment required.
  • Obtain patients' informed consent to proposed interventions.
  • Discharge patient from physical therapy when goals or projected outcomes have been attained and provide for appropriate follow-up care or referrals.
  • Provide information to the patient about the proposed intervention, its material risks and expected benefits and any reasonable alternatives.
  • Inform patients when diagnosis reveals findings outside physical therapy and refer to appropriate practitioners.
  • Direct, supervise, assess, and communicate with supportive personnel.
  • Provide educational information about physical therapy and physical therapists, injury prevention, ergonomics and ways to promote health.
  • Refer clients to community resources and services.
  • Administer treatment involving application of physical agents, using equipment, moist packs, ultraviolet and infrared lamps, and ultrasound machines.
  • Teach physical therapy students as well as those in other health professions.
  • Evaluate, fit, and adjust prosthetic and orthotic devices and recommend modification to orthotist.
  • Direct group rehabilitation activities.
  • Conduct and support research and apply research findings to practice.
  • Participate in community and community agency activities and help to formulate public policy.
  • Construct, maintain and repair medical supportive devices.

Source: BLS

Companies That Hire Physical Therapists

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