Physical Therapist

A physical therapist works with individuals who have problems with mobility, including those who have suffered injuries or illnesses. Physical therapists help these patients to help improve their movement, which might include exercises, stretching, hands-on therapy, and the use of certain equipment. The treatments aim to increase mobility, reduce or relieve pain, prevent further injury or pain, and improve general health. Physical therapists might try a variety of tactics to bring their patients the relief they seek, and so their approaches can vary depending upon the specific situation and setting.

What does a physical therapist do?

Sometimes referred to as a PT, a physical therapist uses their knowledge of the body to help patients of all ages with two key areas: movement and pain management. These issues can be the result of injuries, such as those resulting from car accidents, or chronic conditions, such as arthritis or cerebral palsy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), some of their specific daily duties may include:

  • Diagnosing dysfunctional movements by observing patients and asking about their symptoms
  • Creating care plans which set out patient goals
  • Ease patient pain and increase mobility using exercises, stretching, special equipment (such electric stimulation), and hands-on therapy
  • Educate patients and their families on the use of assistive devices, such as crutches, and explain the expected recovery process
  • Develop fitness programs to prevent the loss of mobility for people in their community

Physical therapists can specialize in different types of care, such as orthopedics or geriatrics, and play an important role on a patient's health care team, which can include physicians, surgeons, and other specialists.

How to become a physical therapist

Becoming a physical therapist starts with earning a bachelor's degree, then moving into a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program, reports the BLS. Admissions offices typically require a high school transcript, completed application, references, a personal essay, and perhaps other specific information in order to consider a student for enrollment in a bachelor's degree program. Most schools will only accept students who have earned a minimum grade point average or test scores.

In the course of learning how to become a physical therapist, students can expect to take courses in physiology, biology, chemistry, anatomy, and physics. Once their bachelor's degree is complete, students can apply for the DPT program, which includes intensive coursework in physiology, anatomy, biomechanics, pharmacology, and neuroscience. Most DPT programs require students to apply through the Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service, or PTCAS.

A bachelor's degree typically requires four years of full-time study to complete, while the DPT program is an additional three years, according to the BLS. Some choose to get a jump-start on their education by earning an associate degree in physical therapy assisting, then transfer those credits to complete the bachelor's degree program.

In addition to the completion of classes, internships are usually required during pursuit of the DPT. These internships allow students to gain hands-on experience in a number of areas, such as orthopedics, and teach them how to become a physical therapist in a variety of settings. Upon graduation, training continues with a one-year residency, during which time the physical therapist receives additional training in various specialties. Those who want to gain even more experience and credentials can look into a fellowship.

Certification and licensure

After earning the Doctor of Physical Therapy degree, physical therapists must obtain a license in order to practice. License requirements for physical therapists vary by state, but they all have one thing in common: passing the National Physical Therapy Examination administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. Some states might also require a background check or law exam.

Those who want to become board-certified can undergo further training to achieve that goal. Obtaining a board certification requires at least 2,000 hours of clinical work or completion of a residency program in the specialty, as well as passing an examination. There are eight board certifications available through the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties, including:

  • Cardiovascular and pulmonary
  • Geriatrics
  • Neurology
  • Pediatrics
  • Sports
  • Women's health
  • Orthopedics
  • Clinical electrophysiology

In order to work with patients who have a variety of issues, physical therapists must be resourceful, very detail-oriented, and have excellent communication and interpersonal skills. They must have the dexterity and physical strength to help patients move properly during their treatments. Compassion and empathy are also key qualities for those in this profession, as they are working with patients who are frustrated, unable to move properly, and possibly in pain.

Continuing education is a must for physical therapists in order to keep their license current. To learn more about continuing education in a particular state, visit the state board for requirements.

Physical therapy equipment

The types of equipment, or modalities, that physical therapists use to increase mobility and relieve pain vary depending on the patient's condition. Here are a few of the most common:

  • Assistive devices -- Wheelchairs, crutches, canes and splints help patients perform tasks or movements.
  • Traction -- Stretchy exercise bands provide patients with manual tension that allows for increased tissue flexibility and muscle tone.
  • Electric muscle stimulation -- By applying electricity to muscles that have atrophied, physical therapists help the muscle reconnect with the nerve.

Salary information and career outlook

According to data from the BLS, physical therapists made a mean annual wage of $83,940 in 2014. The top ten percent made $116,090 or more, while the bottom ten percent made $56,800 or less. Top paying industries for physical therapists include schools and instruction, home health care services, skilled nursing facilities, individual and family services, and continuing care or assisted living facilities.

Source: 2016 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov.

The five states with the highest mean annual salary for physical therapists in 2014 were:

  1. Nevada ($127,900 per year)
  2. Alaska ($96,350 per year)
  3. New Jersey ($92,380 per year)
  4. California ($92,120 per year)
  5. Texas ($91,560 per year)

Those who want to work as physical therapists could see a robust job market in the coming years. According to the BLS, employment of physical therapists is expected to increase by 36 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations. This healthy growth will be driven by an aging baby boomer generation, a rise in chronic conditions, significant advances in medical technology, and the growing number of individuals with access to physical therapy thanks to federal health care reform.

Though physical therapists can find work in a variety of medical settings, job prospects should be best in skilled-nursing facilities, orthopedic settings, and acute-care hospitals. Those who are willing to work in rural areas might also see better opportunities, the BLS notes.


  1. American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties, http://www.abpts.org/home.aspx
  2. Baylor Scott & White Health, "Modalities and Assistive Devices Used in Physical Therapy," http://www.sw.org/physical-medicine-rehabilitation/modalities
  3. Physical Therapists, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physical-therapists.htm#tab-1
  4. Physical therapists, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes291123.htm

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