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Physical therapist

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Physical Therapists

Physical therapists are healthcare professionals that design and implement physical therapy programs for individuals that help develop, maintain and restore maximum movement and functional ability. They are trained and certified by a state or accrediting body and may work within a hospital or clinic, in a school providing assistance to special education students, or as independent practitioners.


Humans have been practicing physical therapy for centuries, although under different names and using different methods, but it wasn't until one hundred years ago that training programs were developed and physical therapists began working in formal settings. In 1894 the first known group of physical therapists formed in England; these nurses referred to themselves as the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy- in most other countries physical therapy is known as physiotherapy and thus physical therapists are referred to as physiotherapists. The need for physical therapists greatly increased after World War I as wounded soldiers needed help recovering, and the profession took off. Since then you can find physical therapists not only in hospitals, but also in clinics, schools, and nursing homes. Physical therapy has grown tremendously since Ancient Greece where Hippocrates suggested massage to the people [1]. Today physical therapy is one of the fastest growing careers; as the need for healthcare workers as a whole grows the need for physical therapists will as well. 173,000 jobs were held in the US by physical therapists in the year 2006 but by 2016 220,000 workers are to be expected [2]. Physical therapists will always be needed as they help everyone, from children born with disabilities to grandmothers just receiving hip replacements.

Job Description and Responsibilities

Physical therapists (PTs) help assist those who have been injured or have developmental problems to work on preventing more damage and regaining that which was lost. PT's first examine and test the patient's functionality, ability to move, strength, and balance. After the problem has been diagnosed a PT will create a plan that the patient and the therapist can work on together until they have met their goal. A patient's part usually includes doing exercises at home that involve balance, strength, and flexibility [2]. A physical therapist uses many modes like massage, compresses, and electrotherapy, a treatment that uses electric currents to spark chemical changes in the body [3].

A person receiving electrotherapy treatment for his leg

Physical therapists usually work full time, forty hour weeks. There are a variety of different areas where one can work. About twenty percent of PTs work in hospitals, but the rest work in clinics, homes, schools, fitness centers, and extended home clinics [4].

It is a physical therapist assistant's job to help the physical therapist, work with the patients on their exercises, and carry out modes of therapy such as electrotherapy and massage. Physical therapy assistants can be found in all the same places as a physical therapist, but also, it is more likely to see them in schools and fitness centers [5].

Required Schooling and Certification

To become a physical therapist one must receive a doctorate of physical therapy which takes six or seven years, depending on the university attended and the program chosen. The requirements for gaining a doctorate in six years are the exact same as gaining one in seven years, the only difference is the amount of time spent in undergraduate studies. Both tracks start with enrollment at a college or university. There is some freedom within picking your major, because your specific studies will be completed at the graduate level. The majority of students want to major in a science based field: kinesiology, biology, exercise science, pre-physical therapy or in a pre-med program that will satisfy graduate school requirements [6].It is recommended that you talk to an admissions counselor at the college you plan to attend, because different institutions will encourage you in different directions. Either of a Bachelor of Sciences (B.S.) or a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degree can be earned. Three or four years of general study is followed by enrollment in a Graduate School of Physical Therapy where two more years of studying are spent and then a final year of internships. During the final two years you can choose to specialize in a certain area, i.e. geriatric, sports medicine, pediatric, or neurological areas. [7]

After graduation you must still complete the National Physical Therapy Examination, a 250 multiple choice question test, within five hours [8]. Different states also require additional state examinations before licensure. A physical therapist's education is always being furthered, because many states require ongoing educational classes to be taken to keep licensure [9].

Schooling for a physical therapist assistant greatly differs and only requires a two year associate's degree (AA) earned at an accredited physical therapist assistant program [10]. Graduates must then pass the National Physical Therapy Assistant Examination, a 200 multiple choice question exam, in four hours [8].

Areas of Specialization

A children's area at a physical therapy clinic

Physical therapists can choose to specialize in any of these areas:

  • Pediatrics: Detect and treat the health problems of infants, children, and adolescents. They particularly help those with developmental issues and diseases such as cerebral palsy and spina bifida gain strength, balance, and improve motor skills [11].
  • Sports medicine: One who specialized in this area will work with athletes and their injuries, helping players regain strength and mobility and developing plans for prevention.
  • Orthopedics: This is the study concerning the musculoskeletal system. Those who have sports or work injuries, torn tendons, and muscle or ligament tissues will spend time with an orthopedics specialist.
  • Geriatrics: Deals with the health of the elderly and helping them move while coping with the pain associated with arthritis, osteoporosis, and joint replacements [11].
  • Neurology: This area of focus helps those who have suffered from a neurological disease or dysfunction. This can include those suffering from spinal cord injuries or paralysis [11].
  • Cardiopulmonary: Helps those who are recovering from strokes, heart attacks, and other cardiopulmonary diseases gain back function and strength [11].

Outlook and Wages

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the estimated average yearly income for a full time employed physical therapist is $74,410 [12].

The job outlook for physical therapists is very good, much like the rest of the health care industry. Physical therapy specifically is expected to grow 27% between the years of 2006 and 2016, more than 15% faster than the national average for other jobs [13][2]. Job opportunities will be plentiful for licensed practitioners, especially those who are specialized to work with a certain people group or with a particular treatment. This increasing need and opportunity for physical therapists will occur mostly because of the aging baby boomer generation. As the elderly population increases dramatically, the number of stroke and heart attack victims needing rehabilitation will go up as well. Also, as medical technology advances a greater number of newborns with birth defects and victims of terrible accidents will be saved. These people's lives will be saved, but they will have to spend significant time in recovery working with a physical therapist. Lastly, as the country's awareness of safety and health care increase more employers will be taking special notice of their employees' work sites and working habits. Already, employers are hiring physical therapists to assess their worksite and inform employees of proper lifting methods in hopes of preventing future work related injuries [2].


  1. History of Physical Therapy by Eugene Physical Therapy
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Physical Therapists Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2008-09 Edition.
  3. Electrotherapy.
  4. Physical Therapist Florida Health Careers.
  5. Physical Therapist Assistants
  6. Doctor of Physical Therapy 3+3 Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania.
  7. Physical Therapist Schooling
  8. 8.0 8.1 NPTE& NPTAE* Test Information
  9. Physical Therapist: Career Information By Dawn Rosenberg McKay,
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 by Laura Inverarity, D.O. for November 28, 2007.
  12. 29-1123 Physical Therapists Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2008.
  13. Key Phrases in the Handbook Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, 2008-09 edition.