What does a physical therapist do? Also known as the movement expert, a PT practitioner has knowledge and training in human movement. Through hands-on treatment, physical therapists help patients recover from injury and live to their fullest potential. Interested in a physical therapist career? Learn what physical therapists do, where they work, what level of education they need to practice, and what career paths are available to them.
What Do Physical Therapists Do?
Physical therapists help patients with injuries and chronic health conditions regain their range of motion, manage their pain, and improve their quality of life. For example, if you need help managing lower back pain or recovering from an ACL tear, you would go to a physical therapist. PTs play a critical role not only in treating musculoskeletal conditions, but also in educating patients about staying fit and preventing future injuries.
Where Do Physical Therapists Work?
Physical therapists work in a variety of settings alongside other health professions, ranging from private clinics and hospitals to work settings and sports facilities. Many environments allow physical therapists to wear slacks and a dress shirt or comfortable scrubs.
Physical therapists can work in:
- Private practices
- Sports and fitness facilities
- Home health agencies
- Outpatient clinics
- Inpatient rehabilitation facilities
- Workplace environments
- Skilled nursing facilities
Earning Potential for Physical Therapists
The average salary for a physical therapist is around $85,000, but it can fluctuate depending on factors such as job title, work experience, education level, location, and workplace. Physical therapy jobs are in high demand, with low unemployment rates across the country. This is expected to continue as the population ages and the need for physical therapy services increases.
Physical Therapist Education Requirements
In order to become a physical therapist, you need to have a bachelor’s degree, preferably in a science-related field. Then you need to earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree from a CAPTE-accredited physical therapist program. The DPT program is the entry-level degree to the profession. Most physical therapy education programs take three years or more to complete and include classroom work, hands-on lab activities, and clinical internship experiences.
Following graduation, you must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE), which is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT). You must also pass your home state’s licensure exam. State requirements for licensure vary.
Job Duties of a Physical Therapist
Physical therapists work with patients to improve their movement and manage their pain with a treatment plan. PTs use a variety of techniques to help their patients, including hands-on therapy, strengthening and stretching exercises, electrical stimulation, ultrasound, ice/heat, and much more.
Physical therapists work with patients who suffer from back and neck injuries, fractures, neurological disorders, work or sports-related injuries, and other conditions. The treatments a physical therapist chooses will depend on the patient and their injury.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, physical therapists work with patients by:
- Reviewing patients’ medical histories
- Diagnosing patients by observing their movements and listening to their concerns
- Developing individualized treatment plans for patients
- Outlining clear goals for patients and the expected outcomes of the plan
- Using exercises, stretching, equipment, and hands-on therapy to manage patients’ pain, increase mobility, and prevent further pain and injury
- Recording patients’ progress and modifying the plan of care if needed
- Educating patients and family members about the recovery process
Applying for the Right Program
The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) does not rank Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) education programs. Instead, programs are accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) to ensure they meet quality standards. When choosing a DPT program, it’s important to consider various factors:
- Expense and availability of financial aid. Many students graduate with student loans. It’s crucial to be aware of the cost and to have a plan in place to finance your education. Keep in mind that different programs have different costs and may offer different student experiences.
- Duration of the program. The standard DPT program is three years, however, some programs have condensed the academic requirements into a shorter period, which can aid in reducing the overall cost of your education and get you into the field sooner.
- Demographics and location of the program. As you will be investing a lot into your physical therapy education, it’s crucial to pick a program that aligns with your preferences and makes you feel comfortable.
Being a physical therapist can be mentally and physically draining. It’s a role that requires hands-on, individualized patient care. Some of the job skills needed to be a physical therapist are:
- Interpersonal communication skills
- Attention to detail
- Creative problem solving
- Time management
Career Paths for Physical Therapists
Physical therapy online courses offer several opportunities for advancement. You can choose to continue your education with a clinical residency or fellowship, or you can opt to specialize in one or more areas. Many PTs choose to become leaders in the field by opening their own private practice. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, physical therapist jobs are growing at 18%, much faster than the average for all professions.
After earning a DPT degree, licensed physical therapists can pursue a residency or fellowship to further their education.
- Clinical residency: A clinical residency is an optional, structured program that licensed physical therapists can take post-graduation. Typically one year long, it is a clinical and didactic education that is designed to advance a physical therapist’s preparation as a provider of patient care services in a specific area of practice.
- Clinical fellowship: A clinical fellowship follows the residency and is similar in structure. It is for physical therapists who have clinical expertise in a defined area of clinical practice related to the focus of the fellowship. Fellowship programs must have:
- A curriculum that is focused on a subspecialty area of practice
- A mentored clinical experience
- A patient population that creates an environment for advanced clinical skill-building
Certification and Specializations
Once they have significant practice experience under their belt, a physical therapist can become board certified as a clinical specialist through the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS) in one of several specialty areas, including:
- Cardiovascular and pulmonary
- Clinical electrophysiology
- Women’s Health
- Wound Management
In order to become board-certified, applicants must pass an exam and complete an APTA-accredited residency program or at least 2,000 hours of clinical work.
How to Start Your PT Career Today
If you’re excited by the possibility of helping patients as a physical therapist, make sure to choose a physical therapy grad school that offers a strong Doctor of Physical Therapy program that will challenge you to become a versatile, empathetic, and autonomous practitioner.
The largest PT school in the United States, the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) offers a hands-on Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. Practice with mock and real patients in our state-of-the-art simulation centers and learn anatomy with our high-tech tools. Prepare for clinical practice with a wide range of patients, as well as advanced roles in research, practice leadership, and policymaking. Residential and Flex (weekend-focused) pathways are available. Most programs take three years or more to complete and include classroom work
APTA, “Physical Therapist (PT) Education Overview,” last updated Nov. 12, 2019
Bureau of Labor Statistics, “What Physical Therapists Do,” Sept. 4, 2019: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physical-therapists.htm#tab-2