Physical Therapist Job Description and Duties

Get all the details on what a physical therapy job is like, from what you’ll do to where you’ll work.

From teaching someone to walk again to relieving the pain of severe arthritis, a day in the life of a physical therapist (PT) can be challenging, but immensely rewarding. In their role, physical therapists either treat a wide range of patients with varying physical problems or they may specialize in a certain type of care, such as sports injuries.

In many cases, you’ll form long-term relationships with patients and be rewarded by seeing their hard work pay off.  In fact, you’ll act as both a doctor and a cheerleader in many scenarios. The job involves a deep understanding of the human body as well as a compassionate nature since many patients may be struggling with negative emotions related to their injury or disease.

What does a physical therapist do?

Physical therapists treat patients by teaching them different exercises intended to strengthen or stretch muscles as well as alleviate pain. Prior to this, you’ll consult with the patient on their symptoms and develop a rehabilitation plan. Throughout the process, a large part of your job will include being supportive and understanding. Providing encouraging words is just as important as the physical aspect of the job.

Regular duties of a physical therapist include:

  • Consulting with patients to learn about their physical condition and symptoms
  • Developing a treatment plan
  • Teaching patients how to properly use exercise techniques
  • Providing stimulation or massage
  • Use equipment and devices to assist patients
  • Maintain patients records, keeping track of goals and progress
  • Advise patient and family about in-home treatment options and exercises

A word about occupational therapy: Occupational therapists and physical therapists—both fall under the rehabilitation therapy umbrella—have a number of similarities like consulting with patients, developing treatment plans and using a number of exercises and equipment to treat patients. However, occupational therapists focus on ways to help patients with everyday activities. For example, they might evaluate a workspace or classroom and make adjustments to the environment and equipment for a patient with a disability. Like PTs, occupational therapists also need to be supportive, compassionate and patient.

What education or certification will I need to become a physical therapist?

All 50 states require physical therapists to be licensed and you typically need to hold a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree to practice. In some instances, a Master of Physical Therapy (MPT) degree is acceptable.

To get to the advanced degree level, there are a few routes you can take. You can enroll in a Bachelor’s-to-Master’s program which allows students to earn both degrees at a quicker rate. You can also earn your MPT first and go on to a doctoral program.

In order to become licensed, you’ll need to pass the National Physical Therapist Examination (NPTE). While every state requires a passing score on the NPTE, some states may have other requirements in order to work as a physical therapist, so always check with your state boards.

Occupational therapists need a master’s degree and all 50 states require certification from the National Board of Certification for Occupational Therapists (NBCOT). In order to become certified, you’ll need to pass the NBCOT exam. Upon passing, you’ll earn the title Occupational Therapist Registered (OTR).

What career paths can I take as a physical therapist?

Physical therapists have the option of choosing between treating a wide variety of injuries and illnesses or they can specialize in a certain area of care. In either case, the top four work settings where you’ll find physical therapist jobs are:

  • Health practitioner offices: PTs work with patients on a regular basis until their condition improves.
  • Hospitals: Patients typically have life-altering injuries or need to regain body function.
  • Home health care services: PTs travel to a patient’s home where they conduct the same types of diagnosis and treatment as they might in a medical setting.
  • Nursing and residential care facilities: PTs focus on improving a patient’s overall body function with exercises and equipment.

A small percentage of physical therapists choose to run a private practice, which can be a lucrative career path once you’ve built up a large base of patients.

Occupational therapists also work in similar settings, but almost half are employed in offices of physical, occupational and speech therapists.

Learn about pay & job projections for physical therapists.

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