Physical therapists are evidence-based, health care professionals who diagnose and treat individuals of all ages who have medical problems or other health-related conditions that limit their abilities to move and perform functional activities in their daily lives. They offer cost-effective treatment that improves mobility and relieves pain, reduces the need for surgery and prescription drugs, and allows patients to participate in a recovery plan designed for their specific needs. In addition, physical therapists work with individuals to prevent the loss of mobility before it occurs by developing fitness and wellness programs for healthier and more active lifestyles.
Physical therapists provide care for people in a variety of settings, including hospitals, private practices, outpatient clinics, home health agencies, schools, sports and fitness facilities, work settings and nursing homes. State licensure is required in each state in which a physical therapist practices.
As essential participants in the health care delivery system, physical therapists assume leadership roles in rehabilitation, prevention, health maintenance and programs that promote health, wellness and fitness. Physical therapists also play important roles both in developing standards for physical therapy practice and in developing health care policy to ensure availability, accessibility and optimal delivery of health care services.
As clinicians, physical therapists engage in an examination process that includes:
- Taking the patient’s medical history
- Reviewing the medications, test results and notes from other health care providers
- Conducting a systems review
- Performing tests and measures to identify potential and existing problems
To establish diagnoses, prognoses and plans of care, physical therapists perform evaluations, synthesizing the examination data and determining whether the problems to be addressed are within the physical therapy scope of practice. Physical therapists typically do the following:
- Diagnose patients’ functions and movements by observing them stand, walk or perform activities/tasks; performing various tests and measures; and listening to their concerns.
- Design individualized plans of care based on their medical expertise, best available research, the patients’ unique situations and goals and the expected outcomes of the plans.
- Use techniques such as exercises, hands-on therapy and equipment to ease patients’ pain, help them increase their mobility, prevent further pain or injury and facilitate health and wellness.
- Evaluate a patients’ progress and modify their plans of care, when necessary, to try new treatments.
- Educate patients and their families about what to expect and how best to cope with a recovery process.
- Develop and implement discharge plans.
A few of the health conditions commonly treated by physical therapists are as follows:
- Back and neck pain
- Brain injury
- Cancer-related complications
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Cerebral palsy
- Chronic pain
- Cystic fibrosis
- Fall risk and balance issues
- Fractures and multiple trauma
- Joint injuries, including to knee and ankle
- Multiple sclerosis
- Muscle strains
- Parkinson’s disease
- Pelvic pain
- Plantar fasciitis
- Post-operative rehabilitation
- Rotator cuff injuries
- Spinal cord injuries and birth defects
- Sports injuries
The practice of physical therapy varies by the type of patient. For example, a patient experiencing loss of mobility due to stroke needs different care from that given to an athlete recovering from an injury. Some physical therapists specialize in one type of care, such as orthopedics or geriatrics. Many physical therapists also help to prevent loss of mobility by developing fitness and wellness programs to encourage healthier and more active lifestyles.
Although many physical therapists practice in hospitals, more than 80% practice in other settings, according to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA). Physical therapists also provide care for people in private practices, outpatient clinics, home health agencies, schools, sports and fitness facilities, work settings and nursing homes.
Physical therapists are on their feet much of the day and spend a great deal of time using their bodies to work with patients or to lift and move them. It’s important for physical therapists to learn proper body mechanics and use those principles in their daily work to avoid injuring themselves.
Most physical therapists work a regular Monday-to-Friday work week. Depending on the work setting, however, some may need to work evenings or weekends.
Salary Range and Outlook
U.S. News & World Report ranked physical therapist twelfth in its 2016 list of best health care jobs. It’s also a job that is likely to be in demand. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment of physical therapists will grow by 36% between 2014 to 2024, much faster than the average for all occupations.
Salaries vary based on position, years of experience, degree of education, geographic location and practice setting. The BLS reports that the average salary for the profession is $84,020 per year.
To practice as a physical therapist in the United States, you must graduate with a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree from an accredited program and pass a state licensure exam. Generally, students complete a bachelor’s degree in four years followed by three years in the DPT education program.
Some programs offer a 3+3 curricular format in which three years of specific pre-professional (undergraduate/pre-PT) courses must be taken before the student can advance into a three-year professional DPT program. A few programs recruit all or a portion of students directly from high school into a guaranteed freshman admissions program. High school students accepted into these programs can automatically advance into the professional phase of the program pending the completion of specific undergraduate courses and any other stated contingencies (eg, minimum GPA).
As of 2015, professional physical therapist education programs in the United States only offer the DPT degree. The Master of Physical Therapy and Master of Science in Physical Therapy degrees have been discontinued. Check the American Physical Therapy Association’s accredited programs directory and the Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service (PTCAS) websites for a list and descriptions of accredited DPT education programs. You can also review the admission requirements for programs on the PTCAS website.
As a physical therapy student, your classes will include:
- Behavioral sciences
- Cardiovascular and pulmonary system
- Cellular histology
- Clinical reasoning
- Endocrine and metabolic system
- Evidence-based practice
- Exercise physiology
- Management sciences
- Musculoskeletal system
You will also have lab study and spend part of your time gaining clinical experience. Physical therapy students spend 27.5 weeks on average in their final clinical experience.
Once you earn a DPT degree, you must pass a state licensure exam in order to practice as a physical therapist.
Learn More About a Career as a Physical Therapist
- Watch “You Can Be Me” and “Why I Chose a Career in Physical Therapy” videos on the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) website.
- Watch “Choose Physical Therapy for Safe Pain Management,” an APTA public service announcement.
- Take a look at the Information for Prospective Students section on the APTA website.
- Explore how physical therapists treat symptoms and conditions on the APTA Move Forward: Physical Therapy Brings Motion to Life website.
- American Council of Academic Physical Therapy
- American Physical Therapy Association (APTA)
- APTA Student Assembly