What Does a Physical Therapist Do? Job Description & Career Path
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.
As a physical therapist, you will diagnose and treat patients who have health conditions that limit their ability to move and perform everyday activities. You will not only help restore their physical function and mobility, you will also work to promote overall wellness and boost their quality of life.
Physical therapy is a great career if you’re interested in practicing hands-on care and want to empower people to positively engage in their own health and healing.
Through your work as a PT, you can help patients avoid surgery and reduce the need for prescription drugs. 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 clinical expert and a cheerleader in many scenarios. You will need a deep understanding of human anatomy and kinesiology, but also be adept at motivating and encouraging people who are struggling with pain and physical dysfunction.
Although this article focuses on the role of physical therapists, you may also want to consider a career as a physical therapy assistant (PTA). PTAs provide physical therapy services under the supervision of a PT and need a two-year associate’s degree in order to practice.
Keep reading to learn more about the physical therapist job description and salary, plus helpful information about education requirements and specializations.
What Physical Therapists Do
During a patient’s initial appointment, you’ll ask about their medical history, evaluate their symptoms and develop a rehabilitation plan that aligns with the patient’s personal needs and goals.
Throughout the treatment process, you’ll work directly with the patient to teach them different functional tasks and exercises intended to strengthen or stretch muscles as well as alleviate pain.
The responsibilities of a physical therapist include:
- Consulting with patients to learn about their physical condition and symptoms
- Diagnosing movement dysfunction and developing a treatment plan
- Teaching patients how to properly use therapeutic exercise techniques
- Providing stimulation or massage to promote healing
- Assisting patients with the use of equipment such as wheelchairs or walkers
- Maintaining patient records and keeping track of goals and progress
- Advising the patient and family about in-home treatment options and exercises
As a physical therapist, you’ll be a vital member of a healthcare team, all working together to help patients with both acute and chronic conditions.
- In a hospital setting, nursing home, or a rehabilitation facility, you will share information and coordinate your treatment plan with a variety of care providers on site such as physicians, nurses, occupational therapists, speech therapists, or physical therapy assistants.
- If you work in an outpatient clinic, you will also communicate with the patient’s primary care provider to develop and modify treatment plans. You may also work in conjunction with a massage therapist, or you may supervise a physical therapy assistant or exercise specialist as well.
You will draw on many different disciplines to perform your job duties in physical therapy. You’ll apply knowledge of anatomy, exercise physiology, biomechanics, kinesiology, neuroscience, pharmacology, cardiovascular and pulmonary systems, and other areas.
To succeed as a physical therapist, you’ll also need to be an effective communicator and have strong interpersonal skills to motivate your patients and provide compassionate care. On average, physical therapists tend to spend more one-on-one time with patients than many other types of healthcare practitioners, so building trust and positive rapport is essential.
Physical Therapist Work Environment and Hours
The physical therapist work environment offers plenty of variety—giving you flexibility and options throughout your career.
Physical therapists work in a wide range of settings, such as:
- Nursing homes
- Outpatient clinics
- Rehabilitation facilities
- Home health services
- Government organizations
- Research centers
- Sports and fitness centers
Unlike many nurses or physicians, physical therapists do not have to work overnight shifts. Physical therapist work hours generally range from 8 am to 5 pm, although some PTs may start earlier or work later in the evening to accommodate the busy schedules of patients.
However, PTs that work in hospitals or nursing homes may need to work hours on the weekends or on holidays to provide continuous patient care.
Physical Therapy vs. Occupational Therapy
Physical therapists and occupational therapists both work in rehabilitation therapy and use many of the same skills. Physical therapists help people improve their movement and manage their pain, whereas occupational therapists focus on helping patients develop or regain the skills needed for daily tasks so they can function independently.
For example, an occupational therapist might help a stroke victim learn how to get dressed and avoid fall hazards, or they might help someone with multiple sclerosis get comfortable using a wheelchair and bathroom safety devices so they can keep living at home even when their physical abilities have changed.
In the course of treatment, some patients will work with both a physical therapist and an occupational therapist. Each of these roles provides similar but distinct functions in helping people recover and perform the activities that are essential for daily life.
Working as a Physical Therapist
If you’re looking for a job that could bring personal fulfillment each day, physical therapy is one to consider. Forbes ranked physical therapy as one of the top 10 happiest jobs, due to consistent social interaction and the rewards that come with helping others.
But what does a typical day in the life of a PT look like? Daily routines and job responsibilities will vary slightly depending on where you work. Here’s a quick overview of what PTs do in different settings:
- Hospitals: Provide short-term care to patients who are recovering from an accident, surgery, trauma, or illness.
- Nursing homes: PTs often work with individuals over a longer period of time, serving elderly patients and patients who have Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis or who have had a stroke.
- Outpatient clinics: Here, PTs often treat a broad range of issues such as sports injuries, spine/back/neck/shoulder pain, post-cancer rehab, and women’s health.
- Rehabilitation facilities: Assist patients who are recovering from a surgery or injury and help them regain strength and functionality so they can return home and care for themselves.
- Home health: Visit patients in their homes to provide care. Patients may be seniors, children with developmental disabilities and individuals who are recovering from an injury.
- Schools: Help improve students’ mobility and independence so they can participate in class activities and maximize educational opportunities.
- Research Centers: Improve patient outcomes and conduct evidence-based research to advance the field of physical therapy.
- Sports and fitness centers: PTs focus on promoting wellness and healthy lifestyles and preventing injury and illness.
Although each setting is unique and may require you to work with different types of patients, you will still carry out the same fundamental role: developing treatment plans, educating patients and families about therapeutic exercises and promoting overall health and healing.
Steps to Become a Physical Therapist
The road to becoming a physical therapist involves a thorough education and a variety of hands-on clinical experiences so you can develop both the knowledge and skills to treat all types of patients.
A physical therapy education is designed to provide you with a strong foundation so you can go on to work in any setting after graduation. Additional training and specializations are also available if you would like to build your expertise in a specific area.
Education and Training
In the past, physical therapists could qualify for the role with a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree. As the field has expanded, students are now required to complete more advanced training in order to enter the field.
In the U.S., according to the American Physical Therapy Association, professional physical therapy programs only offer the Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree to new students, and master’s degrees in physical therapy are no longer offered to any new students. A DPT program is typically three years. The program begins with classroom-based learning and then transitions into a series of clinical experiences to help students develop hands-on skills.
In order to practice, you will need to attend a DPT program that is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). In addition, you must pass the national physical therapy exam and apply for a state license.
After graduation, you may decide to enroll in a residency or fellowship program to develop your expertise in a specific area, although this is not a requirement. Fellowships and residencies provide advanced training and mentorship and can put you on a faster track to earning a board certification.
Why become a board-certified specialist?
According to the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties, board certifications can help physical therapists develop specialized knowledge and skills and build a stronger reputation in the field. A prestigious credential like a board certification can open up new employment and leadership opportunities and may lead to higher pay.
Board certifications are available for the following areas:
- Cardiovascular and Pulmonary
- Sports Physical Therapy
- Women’s Health
- Clinical Electrophysiology
To become board certified, licensed PTs must complete 2,000 hours of clinical experience in the specialty area and pass a written exam.
What’s the Job Outlook for Physical Therapists?
The physical therapist job outlook is bright. Employment for PTs is expected to grow 28 percent through 2026, and job opportunities are expected to expand in all healthcare settings, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The median pay for physical therapists was $86,850 in 2017. Salaries for physical therapists range from $59,080 to $122,650. Nursing and residential care facilities tend to offer the highest pay, followed by home healthcare services.
Physical Therapy Career Paths
The physical therapy career path offers variety and opportunities for advancement. You can choose to practice in several healthcare settings, and you can also develop one or more specialties throughout your career to advance your knowledge.
In addition, you may wish to take on a management role to oversee a staff of PTs or open up a private practice to run your own business. Another option is to pursue research opportunities or work as a professor or educator one day.
There are a range of PT specializations to choose from, whether or not you decide to become board certified. Here are a few practice areas:
- Orthopedic Physical Therapist: Focuses on the musculoskeletal system including bones, ligaments, tendons, and joints.
- Geriatric Physical Therapist: Concentrates on the needs of older adults, such as arthritis, osteoporosis and joint replacement.
- Neurological Physical Therapist: Treats conditions and impairments related to the nervous system such as Alzheimer’s, cerebral palsy and Parkinson’s disease.
- Cardiopulmonary Physical Therapist: Helps patients who have diseases of the heart and lungs. Examples include individuals that had a heart attack or have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
- Pediatric Physical Therapist: Serves the needs of infants, toddlers, children, and teens who may have birth defects, developmental delays, head trauma, or other disease and disabilities.
Even if you don’t decide to pursue a residency or fellowship, you will likely take continuing education classes throughout your physical therapy career. In fact, most states require you to complete continuing professional development in order for you to maintain your state licensure.
A huge range of courses are available to help you increase your skills and knowledge of a specific area. Just a few examples include:
- Post-Concussion Syndrome
- Amputee Rehabilitation
- Treating Infants in the NICU
- Fall Prevention for Older Adults
- Physical Therapy Wound Management
- Breast Cancer Rehabilitation
- Trigger Point Dry Needling
- Musculoskeletal Ultrasound Imaging
- Mastery in Manual Therapy
How to Get Started
A successful career in physical therapy begins with a solid education, whether you need to complete a bachelor’s degree and pre-requisite courses for graduate school, or you are ready to apply to DPT programs.
Check out information about scholarships and grants, and explore your education options today. Use the tool below to kickstart your search and find the right program for you.
Learn about pay and job projections for physical therapists.