What is a Physical Therapist?

Are you thinking about becoming a physical therapist (also known as a PT)? These miracle workers of the modern age work with people who have suffered injury or disease. They help their patients by reducing pain and improving overall physical function. This area of the medical industry is growing as Baby Boomers age and need more care.

An Introduction to the Field

Occasionally referred to simply as PTs, play a crucial role in the rehabilitation and treatment of patients who require assistance with improving their movement and managing their pain due to an illness, injury, or chronic condition.

They work with patients of all ages who are struggling with functional problems caused by neck and back injuries, strains, sprains, fractures, amputations, arthritis, injuries caused by work or sports, neurological disorders (such as cerebral palsy or stroke), or other conditions.

Educated on a variety of techniques to provide patient care, including exercises and training in functional movement, which may require the use of equipment such as crutches, canes, and wheelchairs. They also learn special movement techniques for the muscles, joints, and other soft tissues to decrease pain and improve movement.

The specific type of work a practitioner  performs is dependent upon the individual patient. For example, a patient who has suffered a sports injury requires different care than a patient trying to recover their mobility after a stroke. Physical therapists may also work with patients to improve or maintain their mobility by creating fitness and wellness programs that promote a healthier, more active lifestyle. In some cases, a physical therapist may specialize in a specific type of care, such as geriatrics or orthopedics.

As a valuable member of the healthcare team, they oversees the work of assistants and aids and consulting with other healthcare specialists, such as surgeons.

Duties included in the job

Typically, a physical therapist is responsible for:

Reviewing a patient’s medical history, as well as any notes or referrals from other healthcare workers, including doctors.
Diagnosing a patient’s movements and functions using a variety of methods, such as listening to their complaints or watching them stand/ walk.

Creating an individualized care plan for a patient that details the patient’s goals and the expected outcomes of the care plan.
Utilize a variety of stretching methods, exercises, hands-on therapy, and therapeutic equipment to help the patient improve their mobility, relieve pain, prevent additional pain or injury, and facilitate overall health and wellness.

Assess the patient’s progress and record, while also modifying the care plan and instituting new treatments when needed.
Provide patient and family education regarding what to expect and how to cope with any challenges throughout the recovery process.

Where do they typically work?

In 2014, approximately 210,900 were working in the United States. The industries they were most frequently employed in include:

Offices of physical, speech, and occupational therapists or audiologists: 34%
State, local, and private hospitals: 27%
Home healthcare agencies: 12%
Residential care and nursing home facilities: 7%
Physicians’ offices: 5%

In their work environment, PTs spend most of their time on their feet while working with patients. They are at risk for back injuries due to often lifting and moving patients. These risks can be reduced by learning and using appropriate body mechanics and lifting techniques.

Getting an education in the field

As of 2015, there were over 200 programs for the job accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). All offer a DPT degree program.

Typically, the DPT program is completed in 3 years. However, most programs do require that applicants hold a bachelor’s degree, as well as meet specific educational requirements (for example, chemistry, anatomy, biology, and physics classes) before they can be admitted. There are some programs that admit college freshman into a 6- or 7-year program that allows them to graduate with both a bachelor’s degree and DPT. Most DPT programs require that applicants apply through the Physical Therapy Centralized Application Service (PTCAS).

Career programs frequently include classes on anatomy, physiology, biometrics, pharmacology, and neuroscience. Additionally, students are required to complete a minimum of 30 weeks of clinical work, during which they receive supervised education in various areas, such as orthopedic care and acute care.

After graduation, they may apply to and complete a clinical residency program that usually lasts around 1 year and offers additional training and experience in specialized areas of care. Those who opt not to enter a residency program may opt to specialize further by completing a fellowship in an advanced clinical area.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

While licensing requirements differ by state, all require the therapist to hold a license and pass the National Physical Therapy Examination administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. In addition, some states require a criminal background check and law exam. To keep their license, most states require continuing education courses. To determine the specific requirements for your state, check with the state board.

After gaining work experience, some PTs elect to become board-certified specialists through the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties. Certification is available in 8 specialty areas, including geriatric, orthopedics and sports physical therapy. To become board-certified, one must pass an exam and complete a minimum of 2,000 hours of clinical work or complete the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) accredited residency program in the specialty area.

Crucial qualities, skills and requirements

A strong attention to detail: To properly diagnose a patient’s condition, provide care that effective and safe, and evaluate treatments, a physical therapist should have strong observational and analytic skills.


Should have a desire to help others and be able to empathize with their condition.

Interpersonal skills:

Spend a significant amount of time interacting with their patients, which is why they should enjoy working with others, as well as be able to provide patient motivation, explain treatment plans, and listen to patients’ concerns.


Due to a need to customize treatment plans according to a patient’s specific needs, a PT should be flexible and able to adjust care plans as needed.


Often using their hands to provide therapeutic exercises and manual therapy, which is why they need to be comfortable massaging and physically assessing patients.

Physical stamina:

Should be capable of spending long periods of time on their feet as they work to help patients perform exercises and demonstrate proper techniques.

Salaries and average pay

As of May 2015, the median annual wage for PTs was $84,020, meaning half of PTs earned more than this amount and half earned less than this amount. The highest 10% earned over $119,790, while the lowest 10% earned less than $57,060.

The median annual wages for PTs in the top industries in which they work were:

Home healthcare services: $91,400
Residential care and nursing home facilities: $91,140
State, local, and private hospitals: $85,360
Physicians’ offices: $83,420
Offices of occupational, physical, and speech therapists and audiologists: $80,000

For details on sports related income check out the sports physical therapy salary page.

The Prospected Job Outlook

It is projected that the employment of PTs will increase 34% from 2014 to 2024, which is much faster than other career fields. The demand for PTs will largely come from the increased number of baby boomers, who are staying active longer in life. Additionally, older people are at higher risk for stroke, heart attack, and mobility-related injuries that require rehabilitation by a physical therapist.

Also, chronic conditions, such as obesity and diabetes, are more prevalent today than in recent years. More PTs will be needed to help these patients manage the effects of their condition and maintain their mobility.

At the same time, advances in medical technology have increased the number of outpatient surgeries performed to treat injuries and illnesses. Additionally, technological and medical advancements are expected to allow a larger number of trauma victims and newborns with birth defects to survive, which may also require rehabilitative care. PTs will play a crucial role in helping patients recover from surgery.

On a final note, federal health insurance reform means that more people have access to health insurance. This is likely to lead more people to seek treatment for chronic injuries and conditions that may require rehabilitation.

Job Prospects for PT’s

With a 34% increase in employment (or 71,800 jobs) expected from 2014 to 2024, prospects are good for licensed PTs, especially in skilled-nursing facilities, acute-care hospitals, and orthopedic settings. Additionally, due to many PTs living in suburban and urban areas, prospects for employment in rural settings will also be high.

Related careers

PT assistants and aids: Sometimes referred to as PTAs, this field requires the worker to work under the supervision and direction of the profession. They are responsible for helping recovering patients manage pain and regain movement.

Recreational therapists:

Recreational therapist plan, coordinate, and direct recreation based treatment programs. They may use drama, music, dance, arts and crafts, aquatics, games, and community outings to improve or maintain a patient’s physical, emotional, and social well-being.

Occupational therapists:

Using everyday activities, they help disabled, injured, or ill patients develop, improve, and recover the skills they need for daily life.


Audiologists diagnose, treat, and manage patients with hearing, ear, or balance problems.


Chiropractors use spinal manipulation and adjustment, as well as other treatment modalities, to treat problems with the musculoskeletal system, including bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons, and nerves.
Speech-Language Pathologists: Also referred to as speech therapists, workers in this field assess, diagnose, treatment, and work to prevent swallowing and communication disorders in patients. This may be the result of a stroke or brain injury, developmental delays, a cleft palate, autism, Parkinson’s disease, or hearing loss.

Becoming practitioner

There are certain attributes that will help you excel at becoming a PT, including physical strength, patience, endurance, dexterity, communication skills, and believe it or not, optimism. However, these will only take you part of the way.

One of the first things you are going to need is your high school diploma. If you are still in high school, it’s a good idea to take physics, math, chemistry, biology, and social studies to help give you a good foundation. It is also a good idea to have 200 to 300 hours of volunteer time to help you get into a good school.

Next, you need to get a bachelor’s degree, preferably in physical therapy. After that, earn a master’s degree with a focus on physiology, human anatomy, or neuroanatomy. As of 2016, you will need to get your doctorate to become a PT.

After you get the degree, you will need to pass the national physical therapy exam and then get a license for the state in which you are going to practice.

Employment Outlook

While many occupations may suffer from a recession, physical therapy enjoys a very low unemployment rate of 1.1%. It is a rapidly growing area that is made even more popular by the baby boomers reaching an age where they need more care.


A primary responsibility of the PT is to help restore a patient’s body from injury, illness, pain, or other types of disability. The therapy may include a variety of methods to help increase the patient’s range of motion, strength, and coordination. A therapist may use heat, light, water, and cold therapies as well as traction to accomplish the goal. Orthotic and prosthetic devices may also be used to help train patients.

Physical therapists get to work with a wide variety of people, including premature infants, pediatric patients, sports injury patients, back and neck injuries, amputees, geriatric patients, patients with arthritis, and many more.

Continuing Education

Continual growth is important for physical therapists. A PT will need to maintain certain professional and technical knowledge by keeping up with the latest changes in the field.  These may be from reading professional publications, working with professional networks, seminars, educational workshops, and professional societies.

Working Conditions

physical therapist performing rehabilitation excersiesLike many doctors, they are typically seen in hospitals, clinics, and even in private offices that are specially equipped to handle their needs. In some cases they also need to go to people’s homes or even schools to help their patients.

The job can be physically demanding at times. A physical therapist needs to be able to crouch, lift, and stand for long periods of time.

Sometimes they must be able to perform strenuous physical activity in order to help their patients. This, along with strong communication and excellent problem-solving skills can help the therapist assistant patients.

Case study: Sonia Considers a New Career

After a delicious lunch with her friend Jill, Sonia went home with lots of information to consider. She wanted to know more about Physical Therapists and what they really did for a living. She knew Jill had decided to make the jump to this new career, but Sonia wanted to learn more before making a decision.

Sonia had two kids, and she knew she wanted to be able to work with children at least part of the time. She also liked the idea of being able to help her boys if they ever got an injury and needed rehabilitation.

Since a PT’s job is to help restore full mobility after an injury or surgery, she figured that she would work with doctors to help people heal faster.

This was intriguing for Sonia, and in the end was one of the reasons she decided a career as a PT was the right choice for her as well.

often work a 40-hour week, but some also work weekends and evenings to accommodate their patients’ busy schedules. Around 20% work part-time, according to the bureau of labor statistics.

PTs have a varied salary range depending on where they are working. A traveling PT has the opportunity to earn more money. A physical therapist’s salary is typically $60,000 to $88,000 (for a detailed information, check here). They usually make more as they gain more experience or pick up more responsibilities.

Is this the right profession for you? Maybe it’s time for a career change. Perhaps you just want a profession that is growing during a recession. Either way, PT may be a rewarding career choice. Read on to learn more about Sonia and her friends and they begin careers in physical therapy.