Guide to Physical Therapy Careers & Education 

Although it is often seen as a last resort, physical therapy can be a highly effective treatment for many conditions. By working with a trained professional, patients can learn exercises and techniques to improve their strength, flexibility, and range of motion. For many people, this can lead to a significant reduction in pain. 

In addition, physical therapy can help improve balance and coordination, reducing the risk of falls. For people with chronic conditions such as arthritis or heart disease, physical therapy can help to improve their quality of life and increase independence.

Physical therapy services are provided by various professionals with varying education and experience. The level of education, certification, and licensure necessary will depend on the role and responsibility of the position.

Physical therapists, who can diagnose and write treatment plans, must have completed at least a doctor of physical therapy degree (DPT). On the other hand, physical therapy assistants carry out treatment plans written by physical therapists and only need an associate’s degree. Lastly, physical therapy technicians or aides help ensure a physical therapy office runs smoothly but do not provide direct patient care. Physical therapy technicians or aides do not require formal education and typically complete on-the-job training. 

These three careers are critical to helping patients regain mobility and independence. While most physical therapy professionals work in clinics or offices, many are employed in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and long-term care facilities. 

Keep reading to learn more about the job duties for each career, education requirements, and certification and licensure.

Physical Therapy Technician and Aide

Physical therapy technicians and aides provide valuable support to physical therapists. They assist in patients’ care and treatment, helping them achieve their rehabilitation goals. Physical therapy technicians may have an associate’s degree or certification from a vocational school, while aides usually have a high school diploma or equivalent. Both positions require on-the-job training. 

The duties of a physical therapy technician or aide can vary depending on the setting in which they work. Still, they typically provide customer service, clean and sterilize equipment, prepare treatment areas, and transport patients. They may also be responsible for recording patients’ progress and updating their medical files.

Education and Training

Physical therapy technicians must, at a minimum, complete high school or have a GED. A high school diploma or GED demonstrates a minimum level of education and a commitment to completing a program. This can be a direct entry career where candidates can apply for jobs with little experience and learn the role through on-the-job training. Typically, on-the-job training for physical therapy technicians or aides lasts four to 12 weeks, depending on the facility and level of responsibility. 

While not necessary, physical therapy technicians or aides can complete a certificate program to help prepare them for their careers. Many physical therapy technicians or aides certificates can be completed online, such as the certified physical therapy aide certificate program at SUNY Corning Community College in New York. This self-paced distance learning program can be completed at the student’s own pace and covers topics such as the physical therapy profession, medical terminology, organization of the human body, principles of pathology, and infection control. 

After completing a certificate, candidates may have higher employability than candidates without formal education. However, on-the-job training will still be necessary to ensure physical therapy technicians or aides have the necessary skills to excel in this role. 

Certification and Licensure

Certification for physical therapy technicians or aides is voluntary but highly recommended. The primary certifications earned for this profession are the Physical Therapy Technician/Aide certification from the American Medical Certification Association (AMCA) and the Physical Therapy Aide Specialist Certification (CPTAS) from the National Career Certification Board (NCCB).  

Licensing is not required for physical therapy technicians or aides. 

Job Outlook and Salary

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, physical therapy technicians or aides are in high demand. It is estimated that there will be a 19 percent increase in jobs for PT assistants and ai nationally between 2021 and 2031, translating into 8,300 new positions (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2022). 

According to the BLS (May 2021), the average physical therapy technician or aide earns $30,370 annually. The percentiles for wages are:

  • 10th percentile: $22,140
  • 25th percentile: $24,240
  • 50th  percentile (median): $29,200
  • 75th percentile: $35,320
  • 90th percentile: $37,920

Physical Therapy Assistant

A physical therapy assistant is a healthcare professional who assists patients with physical disabilities, injuries, or mobility issues. A physical therapist must supervise physical therapy assistants. They cannot write treatment plans, perform evaluations, diagnose conditions, revise care orders, or discharge patients from care. 

The job of a physical therapy assistant is important because they help patients regain their mobility and improve their quality of life. Physical therapy assistants work closely with their supervising physical therapist to develop and implement treatment plans. They also provide support to patients during their therapy sessions. In addition, physical therapy assistants may be responsible for educating patients and families about their condition and how to prevent further injury. By working with patients and providing them with the necessary support, physical therapy assistants can help patients regain their independence.

Education and Training

Physical therapy assistants must earn at least an associate’s degree in physical therapy from a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). These programs typically take at least two years to complete. Many physical therapy assistant degree programs are offered in flexible online or hybrid formats, allowing students to complete their didactic coursework online.  All CAPTE programs must include at least 520 hours of clinical education to ensure students gain the hands-on skills necessary for this job. 

Mendocino College in Ukiah, California, offers a hybrid two-year physical therapy assistant associate’s degree. Students travel to campus for two days a week of hands-on labs and then return to their homes to complete their online assignments. For in-state students, this five-semester program can be completed for as little as $6,507. 

Certification and Licensure

To practice, physical therapy assistants must obtain a license from their state’s regulatory board. Requirements for licensure will vary by state but will typically include:

  • Pass a national certification examination
  • Graduate from an approved program
  • Complete a background check
  • Pass a state jurisprudence exam

Certification for physical therapy assistants is through the National Physical Therapy Examination for Physical Therapy Assistants (NPTE-PTA) from the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. This exam covers cardiovascular, pulmonary, musculoskeletal, neuromuscular, nervous, integumentary, metabolic, gastrointestinal, genitourinary, lymphatic, and endocrine systems. 

Job Outlook and Salary

According to the BLS (2022), jobs for physical therapy assistants will grow by 26 percent between 2021 and 2031. In total, there will be an estimated 25,600 new jobs in this field. 

According to the BLS (May 2021), the average pay for physical therapy assistants is $60,740. The percentiles for wages are:

  • 10th percentile: $37,280
  • 25th percentile: $48,670
  • 50th  percentile (median): $61,180
  • 75th percentile: $75,870
  • 90th percentile: $80,170

Physical Therapist

Physical therapists (PTs) diagnose and treat individuals of all ages, from newborns to the very oldest, who have medical problems or other health-related conditions that limit their abilities to move and perform functional activities in their daily lives. PTs examine each individual and develop a plan, using treatment techniques to promote the ability to move, reduce pain, restore function, and prevent disability. 

In addition, PTs work with individuals to prevent the loss of mobility before it occurs by developing fitness and wellness-oriented programs for healthier and more active lifestyles. PTs must be able to analyze a person’s movement patterns, as well as identify which muscles are not working correctly and resolve the issues. Doing so can help people suffering from injuries, arthritis, stroke, heart disease, and cerebral palsy, among other conditions. 

Education and Training

All physical therapists must earn a doctorate in physical therapy (DPT). These programs typically take three years to complete, although they can take longer should a student attend part-time. 

Students should ensure their program is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE), as this is required for certification and may be required for licensure. DPT programs will give students the foundation they need to diagnose injuries and disabilities, write treatment plans, provide therapy, and effectively discharge patients. All programs include extensive clinical experiences that are often a full year long. 

While most DPT programs are in person, there are hybrid options such as the one offered at the University of Southern California. At USC, most lecture classes are taught online, allowing students to earn their degrees without relocating. The program works with students to secure a clinical placement at a clinic near their home or a designated site across the country.

Certification and Licensure

Physical therapists are required to be licensed in all 50 states. Requirements will vary by state but typically include:

  • Graduate from an approved program
  • Pass a national certification examination
  • Pass a state jurisprudence exam
  • Complete a background check

The primary certification exam for this career is the National Physical Therapy Exam- Physical Therapist (NPTE-PT), administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. This comprehensive exam evaluates candidates’ skills and knowledge to determine if they are prepared to work in this field. The topics covered on the exam include all body systems, equipment, devices, technologies, therapeutic modalities, safety and protection, and professional responsibilities.

In addition to the NPTE-PT certification, physical therapists can pursue specialty certification through the American Board of Physical Therapist Specialties. Certification requires passing an exam and obtaining experience through either completing 2,000 hours of clinical work in the specialty area within the last ten years or completing an American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) accredited residency. The nine specialties available through the ABPTS include:

  • Cardiovascular & Pulmonary
  • Clinical Electrophysiology
  • Oncology
  • Women’s Health
  • Geriatrics
  • Neurology
  • Orthopedics
  • Pediatrics
  • Sports

Job Outlook and Salary

The job outlook for physical therapy jobs is strong, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2022) estimating a 17 percent increase in jobs in this field between 2021 and 2031. This will mean more than 40,000 new jobs in the next decade. 

On average, physical therapists earn $92,920 annually (BLS May 2021). Here are the percentiles for wages:

  • 10th percentile: $61,930
  • 25th percentile: $77,750
  • 50th  percentile (median): $95,620
  • 75th percentile: $101,920
  • 90th percentile: $127,110
Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson

Writer

Kimmy is a freelance writer with extensive experience writing about healthcare careers and education. She has worked in public health, at health-focused nonprofits, and as a Spanish interpreter for doctor’s offices and hospitals. She has a passion for learning and that drives her to stay up to date on the latest trends in healthcare. When not writing or researching, she can be found pursuing her passions of nutrition and an active outdoors lifestyle.

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