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Physical Therapy Assistant At a Glance
Physical therapy assistants (PTAs) work under the supervision of a physical therapist to help people regain or maintain body motion, ease pain, and lead life to the fullest. The profession is growing fast, and a variety of healthcare facilities need PTAs to help treat patients.
In addition to jobs being in high demand, being a PTA can be a rewarding career.
“What is notable about being a PTA is the impact you can have on people’s lives,” says Marie Scalogna-Watkinson, PTA, LMT, and owner of Spa Chicks on the Go in New York. “It is such an incredible feeling when you can reduce or eliminate another person’s pain and lead them to optimum health. We as PTAs have a unique hand in the rehab process.”
Steps to Become a PTA
Use these steps as a guide to pursue a career as a physical therapy assistant.
- Earn your high school diploma or GED
You’ll need a high school diploma or GED to apply to a PTA program.
- Find a PTA program
You’ll need to earn an associate degree to be a PTA. There are multiple programs available, so research which ones prepare students best for licensing exams. No matter what you choose, make sure the program is accredited.
- Earn your degree
An associate degree generally takes about two years to complete.
- Gain practical experience
PTA programs include a clinical internship as part of their curriculum, and this experience will prepare you for your first job.
- Pass the licensing exam
You’ll need to pass the National Physical Therapy Examination to work as a PTA.
- Consider certifications
Deepen your expertise and stand out to employers by earning a PTA certification.
What PTAs Do and Where They Work
A typical day for a physical therapy assistant will depend on where they work. Hospitals, rehabilitation centers, outpatient clinics, and even in-home care agencies employee PTAs.
Despite the various work settings, PTAs usually have the same responsibilities to their patients, including helping them through therapeutic exercises to build strength and endurance, regain motion, and ease pain. PTAs also use massage and help patients fit and adjust medical gear such as braces.
Some patients might be recovering from surgery, an accident, or a sports injury. Others may have suffered a stroke or are trying to compensate for the symptoms of a chronic disease.
Physical therapy assistants help patients through therapeutic exercises to build strength and endurance, regain motion, and ease pain.
Typical responsibilities for PTAs include:
Physical Therapist Assistant vs. Physical Therapist
The roles may sound similar, but they are separated by education, responsibilities, and salary, as this chart shows.
|Physical Therapist Assistant||Physical Therapist|
|Education Required:||Associate Degree (2-3 years)||Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree (4 years for bachelor’s degree, plus 3 years for DPT degree)|
|Responsibilities:||Assisting PT in executing treatment plan; also, possible clerical duties||Evaluating and diagnosing patients and developing individual treatment plans|
|Median Nationwide Salary:||$59,770||$91,010|
Salary source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020
Many community colleges and universities have associate degree programs for physical therapy assistants. While location and tuition costs may be primary reasons for choosing a school, here are some other factors to consider.
What to Look for in a School
- You’ll need to attend a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). Accreditation ensures that a PTA program provides quality education to its students. If your program isn’t accredited, you won’t be able to take the national exam required for state licensure, which means won’t be able to work as a PTA.
- Most PTA programs are full time, but you may find a few that offer some classes online, if you need that flexibility due to other responsibilities. However, you’ll still be required to attend clinics, internships, and labs in person.
Connections with local medical institutions:
- Take the time to look at a school’s relationship with local hospitals, nursing care homes, outpatient clinics and other settings. This can be an indicator of where you might end up doing clinical internships.
In addition to a high school diploma or GED, some colleges and universities also require prerequisite classes like anatomy, introduction to physical therapy, and medical terminology. This can vary by school, so you should do your research to determine requirements.
PTA programs can also require immunizations, CPR certification, and drug screenings upon enrollment.
PTA programs focus on coursework related to the human body. Some of the courses you can expect include:
Time to Complete
An associate degree usually takes two years to complete. This includes an average of 16 weeks of full-time clinical experience. Because of this, PTA programs usually are not offered part time.
PTA students usually spend 75% of their time in the classroom and lab. The remaining 25% is dedicated to clinical internships and gaining hands-on experience.
Most programs include about 16 weeks of clinical experience, and students are expected to work full time during these internships.
Clinical experience usually begins in the second year of school, when students work with a clinical instructor to apply what they’ve learned in a physical therapy setting.
While some programs will let you get all your clinical experience in one type of workplace, others will place you in several healthcare settings—such as a hospital, nursing home, or rehab clinic—for a wider variety of work experience.
Most programs include about 16 weeks of clinical work, and students are expected to work full time during their internship.
Online PTA Programs
A PTA program may have some coursework online, but internships and lab classes are in person. You may be able to find institutions that are willing to let students take prerequisites and a limited amount of coursework online.
PTA Certifications and Licenses
Physical therapy assistants must be licensed to work. To qualify, they must graduate from an accredited PTA program and take a version of the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE), which is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT).
Passing the exam demonstrates that a person has the knowledge to do their job safely.
Professional PTA certifications are optional, but they’re worth serious consideration because they can demonstrate a PTA’s knowledge or skills.
“I highly suggest taking continuing ed and certification courses that apply to your specialty,” says Scalogna-Watkinson. “For instance, if you work in a hospital or nursing home setting, you may want to take a vestibular certification. If you work in a sports orthopedic office, you may want to take an orthopedic taping course.”
Taking courses or earning certifications will not increase your salary as much as they would for a physical therapist, Scalogna-Watkinson says, “but they will make you stand out in a crowd.”
Depending on your specialty, some possible certifications or courses include:
Certified Kinesio Taping Practitioner (CKTP):
- Kinesio taping lifts the skin to ease pain and encourage lymphatic drainage, which can reduce swelling.
- This technique helps relax contracted muscles to improve blood flow and lymphatic circulation.
Vestibular Rehabilitation Certification (VRC):
- This therapy helps improve balance and reduce dizziness.
You can also choose the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA)-sponsored PTA Advanced Proficiency Pathways program. A physical therapy assistant can specialize in one of these areas:
There are a few prerequisites for this certification program. A person must be a licensed PTA and a member of the APTA. They will also need to complete a few courses covering topics such as ethics and professionalism.
Median Annual Salary
For many, becoming a physical therapy assistant is appealing because you don’t need to spend many years in school to earn a decent salary. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2021 data reports PTAs earn a median annual wage of $61,180.
Take a look at the salary you could earn in your state.
Median Salary: $61,180
Projected job growth: 35.4%
10th Percentile: $37,280
25th Percentile: $48,670
75th Percentile: $75,870
90th Percentile: $80,170
Projected job growth: 35.4%
|State||Median Salary||Bottom 10%||Top 10%|
|District of Columbia||$48,480||$37,130||$77,240|
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2021 median salary; projected job growth through 2030. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.
While education and experience may make a difference in your salary, there are other factors that can also play a role.
For many, becoming a physical therapy assistant is appealing because you don’t need to spend many years in school to earn a decent salary.
For instance, where you work can also be a factor. According to the BLS, the highest-paying metropolitan areas are:
The medical setting in which you work also can affect your salary, partly because demand is higher in some types of workplaces. The BLS says the highest-paying facilities are:
|Workplaces||Median Annual Salary|
|Nursing care facilities||$69,890|
|Home healthcare services||$75,130|
|Offices of physical therapists||$56,290|
|Offices of physicians||$55,150|
PTA employment is projected to grow by a notable 32% through 2030, a rate that’s much higher than the average for all occupations. This is partly because the U.S. population is aging and needs more healthcare in general and for chronic conditions.
Take a look at the demand for physical therapy assistants in the highest and lowest ranking states.