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Physical Therapy Assistant Education, Schools and Career Overview

Physical therapist assistants are an essential part of the health care industry, helping physical therapists to provide care to patients who may be suffering from neurological disorders, back and neck injuries, or issues related to mobility. PT assistants are required to have the education and background to be able to provide needed skills in a health care setting, whether that's an outpatient clinic, rehabilitation center, long-term term care facility or private practice.

Physical Therapy Assistant Specializations and Duties

Physical therapy assistants can work in a variety of places, including hospitals, outpatient clinics or extended-care facilities. They are sometimes referred to as PTAs and can assist physical therapists in treating conditions as varied as carpal tunnel syndrome, fractures, osteoporosis, pelvic pain and traumatic brain injuries, according to the American Physical Therapy Association.

Physical therapist assistants work under the direction and guidance of a physical therapist, who typically has a doctoral or professional degree. On the job, PTAs can assist by providing a range of techniques to patients, including massage or stretching, or helping them to complete specific exercises that have been prescribed to them through a plan of care by a physical therapist. To seek employment, however, PTAs need to be licensed, which may be referred to as certification in some states, and this means they need to pass a national physical therapy exam.

How to Become a Physical Therapy Assistant

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that physical therapy assistants (PTAs) need to have at least an associate degree to seek employment. This background education should provide them with the classroom and clinical components needed to work effectively on the job, usually under the guidance of a physical therapist who has advanced skills and a graduate degree. Because a vast amount of background knowledge -- ranging from anatomy to medical terminology to therapeutic techniques -- is necessary to work as a physical therapy assistant, programs are not available in certificate or diploma form, although these can be found for people who are interested in become physical therapy aides.

Physical therapy assistant degree programs

Graduation from an accredited associate degree program is important, because this accreditation is typically necessary to become licensed in a state. Licensure is needed for employment in nearly all states. Because of the extensive experience required, physical therapist assistant students usually have two degree options available:

  • Associate degrees. Physical therapy assistants who complete associate degrees generally finish in about two years, although this may require some summer classes as five semesters is usually needed, according to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA). These programs provide students with basic knowledge about anatomy and physiology, kinesiology and neuroscience. In fact, the APTA reports that about 75 percent of PTA curriculum generally consists of classroom study while the other 25 percent focuses on clinical education. Students generally gain about 16 weeks of full-time clinical experience.
  • Bachelor's degrees. Physical therapy assistant programs at the bachelor's level are typically available to students who already have completed an associate degree in PTA and are interested in a completion program for a four-year degree. Graduation from an accredited two-year program is typically a requirement for admission into a bachelor's level program, and often licensure is the state is required for admission. Like with an associate degree in physical therapy assisting, these programs provide students with both classroom and clinical experiences, and some degrees are even available online.

Physical therapy assistant training

Schools that offer physical therapy assistant programs typically have their own unique curriculum, which may even be reflective of physical therapy assistant certification or licensing requirements in the state. Often, there are core topics that are covered no matter what school a student completes their studies in. The following subjects may reflect areas covered in a physical therapy assistant program:

  • Administrative Procedures
  • Fundamentals of Disease
  • Kinesiology
  • Medical and Surgical Conditions
  • Motor Development and Aging
  • Medical terminology
  • Neurological Rehabilitation
  • Professional Issues
  • PTA Techniques
  • Therapeutic Exercises

Clinical internships are generally part of any degree program, and these give students opportunities to work in a real-life setting and become comfortable working with patients as well under the supervision of a physical therapist. A one-credit licensure preparation or review course may also be offered as part of a degree program to help students to prepare for state licensure.

Physical therapy assistant certification

Licensure or certification is valuable because it is needed for PTAs to seek employment in almost all 50 states, according to the BLS. State boards of licensing may also have other requirements for applicants to obtain licensure or certification, which may include passing a state-board examination or undergoing a criminal background check. The FSBPT provides more details about these requirements by state on its website (fsbpt.org). Your state board of licensure will also be able to provide you with more information on licensing requirements.

Before taking the NPTE, you may want to test your skills on the practice exam and assessment tool (PEAT), which is available on the FSBPT website. The actual PTA exam is multiple choice and includes 200 questions. Once passing the exam and obtaining state licensure, continuing education may be required for you to renew or keep your state license.

Physical Therapy Assistant Skills and Qualities

In general, physical therapy assistants might expect the same qualities looked for in a physical therapist. Encouraging healthy living through physical therapy includes the following qualities:

  • Well organized
  • Detail oriented
  • Caring
  • Able and willing to take direction
  • Work well in a team situation
  • Strong interpersonal skills
  • Desire to help people 

Salary and Career Outlook for Physical Therapy Assistants

Job opportunities for many health care positions are on the rise, due to a growing Baby Boomer population that is staying more active and, as a result, in need of more care, according to the BLS. Physical therapy assistants may help these and other patients with assistance doing prescribed exercises or by using massage and stretching to provide them relief.

Here’s a closer look at the type of salary and job growth you might expect physical therapy assistants to look for:

CareerTotal EmploymentAnnual Mean WageProjected Job Growth Rate
Physical Therapist Assistants90,170$57,62030.8%
Source: 2016 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov.

Sources:

  • Bachelor of Science in Physical Therapy Assistant Program, Pima Medical Institute, http://pmi.edu/Programs/Bachelors/Bachelor-of-Science-Physical-Therapist-Assistant
  • Physical Therapy Assistant, Associate of Applied Science, ECPI University, http://ecpi.smartcatalogiq.com/en/2014/Catalog/Program-Information/School-of-Health-Science-Medical-Careers-Institute/Physical-Therapist-Assistant/Physical-Therapist-Assistant-Associate-of-Applied-Science-in-Health-Science
  • Physical Therapist Assistant Program Details, Pima Medical Institute, http://pmi.edu/Programs/Associate/Physical-Therapist-Assistant/LearnMore
  • Physical Therapist Assistants and Aides, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physical-therapist-assistants-and-aides.htm
  • Physical Therapist Assistants, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2013, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes312021.htm
  • Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA) Education Overview, American Physical Therapy Association, http://www.apta.org/PTAEducation/Overview/
  • Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA) Careers Overview, American Physical Therapy Association, http://www.apta.org/PTACareers/Overview/
  • NPTE Content, The Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy, https://www.fsbpt.org/ExamCandidates/NationalExam%28NPTE%29/PrepareforExam/NPTEContent.aspx

Physical Therapy Assistant Schools