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How to Become a Physical Therapist

physical therapist
Physical therapists help those suffering from illnesses or injuries manage their pain and improve their movement.
Credit: AVAVA | Shutterstock

Are you an active person who likes working with others? Do you want a job that allows you to help people while furthering your career? If so, then you should consider becoming a physical therapist.

Physical therapists help those suffering from illnesses or injuries manage their pain and improve their movement. They often work with patients as part of rehabilitation treatment or treat those with chronic conditions.

If you’re considering a career as a physical therapist, keep reading to learn more about what your responsibilities will be, where you can expect to find work and what qualifications you’ll need to find a job.

What physical therapists do

Massage, stretching, and exercise are all tools that physical therapists use to get their patients moving down the road to recovery. Physical therapy includes a lot of physical contact and know-how about the appropriate use of hot and cold treatments, muscle stimulation, and medical devices and equipment. These techniques, or modals, form the basis of what therapists do when working with patients.

But apart from actually performing treatments, physical therapists must also observe and listen to their patients in order to make proper diagnoses. They spend a great deal of time planning courses of treatment for patients and evaluating and modifying their treatment schedules to fit a patient’s goals and abilities. They are also responsible for educating patients and their families about what to expect during recovery from injury and illness and how to manage pain during treatment.

Depending on the type of clients a physical therapist has, he or she will have different skill sets and tools. For example, a therapist working with athletes recovering from injuries will use different treatment methods than a therapist who treats patients with Parkinson’s disease. Some physical therapists specialize in one type of care, such as pediatric therapy or sports therapy.

Where physical therapists work

As of 2010, most physical therapists worked in private offices and hospitals, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook. Some therapists also find work in nursing and residential care facilities or with a home health care service. About 7 percent of physical therapists are self-employed, meaning that they own or are partners in owning, their own practice.

Regardless of where they work, physical therapists are usually part of a healthcare team. They are often in managerial positions in which they must oversee physical therapist assistants and aides as well as consult with physicians, surgeons, nurses and specialists.

Most physical therapists work full time, and some must be available to work outside of regular business hours. A career in physical therapy requires a good deal of stamina and fitness, as therapists must often model for patients how to perform certain exercises and often spend much of their work day on their feet.

The median annual wage for physical therapists was $76,310 in 2010, according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook. Employment of physical therapists is expected to increase much faster than the average for all occupations between 2010 and 2020. Demand for physical therapists is on the rise partly because of the large number of baby boomers needing physical therapy treatment as they age.

Becoming a physical therapist

To practice as a physical therapist in the United States, you must obtain either a doctoral degree in physical therapy (DPT) or a master’s degree in physical therapy (MPT). Both programs typically take two to three years to complete and require that successful applicants possess a bachelor’s degree in a related field, as well as certain prerequisite credits in subjects like anatomy and chemistry.

Physical therapy programs include courses in biomechanics, anatomy, physiology, neuroscience, and pharmacology. Students must also complete clinical rotations, which allow them to gain valuable on-the-job experience before starting their careers. Some physical therapy students also complete residency programs for nine months to three years after obtaining a degree in order to receive additional training and experience in advanced or specialty fields of therapy.

All states require that physical therapists obtain a license before practicing their trade. Some states require passing scores on the National Physical Therapy exam, while other states administer a similar, state-level exam. Many states also require that physical therapists complete continuing education courses throughout their careers.

Some physical therapists advance their careers by passing a board certification exam in a particular field, such as sports physical therapy or pediatric therapy.