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What Physical Therapists Do About this section

Physical therapists
Physical therapists evaluate and record a patient’s progress.

Physical therapists help injured or ill people improve movement and manage pain. They are often an important part of preventive care, rehabilitation, and treatment for patients with chronic conditions, illnesses, or injuries.

Duties

Physical therapists typically do the following:

  • Review patients’ medical history and referrals or notes from doctors, surgeons, or other healthcare workers
  • Diagnose patients’ functions and movements by observing them stand or walk and by listening to their concerns
  • Develop individualized plans of care for patients, outlining the patients’ goals and the expected outcomes of the plans
  • Use exercises, stretching maneuvers, 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 and record a patients’ progress, modifying the plan of care and trying new treatments as needed
  • Educate patients and their families about what to expect from the recovery process and how to cope with challenges throughout the process

Physical therapists, sometimes called PTs, care for people of all ages who have functional problems resulting from back and neck injuries; sprains, strains, and fractures; arthritis; amputations; neurological disorders, such as stroke or cerebral palsy; injuries related to work and sports; and other conditions.

Physical therapists use a variety of techniques to care for their patients. These techniques include exercises; training in functional movement, which may include the use of equipment such as canes, crutches, wheelchairs, and walkers; and special movements of joints, muscles, and other soft tissue to improve mobility and decrease pain.

The work of physical therapists varies by type of patient. For example, a patient working to recover mobility lost after a stroke needs care different from that of a patient recovering from a sports injury. Some physical therapists specialize in one type of care, such as orthopedics or geriatrics. Many physical therapists also help patients maintain or improve mobility by developing fitness and wellness programs that encourage healthy, active lifestyles.

Physical therapists work as part of a healthcare team, overseeing the work of physical therapist assistants and aides and consulting with physicians and surgeons and other specialists.

Work Environment About this section

Physical therapists
Physical therapists use exercises and stretching maneuvers to ease patients' pain.

Physical therapists held about 239,200 jobs in 2020. The largest employers of physical therapists were as follows:

Offices of physical, occupational and speech therapists, and audiologists 32%
Hospitals; state, local, and private 28
Home healthcare services 11
Self-employed workers 6
Nursing and residential care facilities 6

Physical therapists spend much of their time on their feet, working with patients. Because they must often lift and move patients, they are vulnerable to back injuries. Physical therapists can limit these risks by using proper body mechanics and lifting techniques when assisting patients.

Work Schedules

Most physical therapists work full time, although part time work is common. They usually work during normal business hours, but some work evenings or weekends.

How to Become a Physical Therapist About this section

Physical therapists
Physical therapists use a variety of techniques, such as massage and stretching, to treat patients.

Physical therapists entering the occupation need a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. All states require physical therapists to be licensed.

Education

Physical therapists need a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree from a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE).

DPT programs typically last 3 years. Physical therapy programs typically require a bachelor's degree, which may be in recreation and fitness or healthcare and related fields, and prerequisite courses such as anatomy, chemistry, and physics.

Most DPT programs require candidates to apply through the Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service (PTCAS).

Physical therapist programs often include courses in biomechanics, neuroscience, and pharmacology. Physical therapist students also complete clinical work, during which they gain supervised experience in areas such as acute care and orthopedic care.

Physical therapists may apply to a clinical residency program after graduation. Residencies typically last about 1 year and provide additional training and experience in specialty areas of care. Physical therapists who have completed a residency program may choose to specialize further by participating in a fellowship in an advanced clinical area. The American Board of Physical Therapy Residency and Fellowship Education has directories of physical therapist residency and fellowship programs.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

All states require physical therapists to be licensed, which includes passing the National Physical Therapy Examination administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. Other requirements vary by state. For example, some states also require a law exam and a criminal background check. Continuing education is typically required for physical therapists to keep their license. Check with your state board for specific licensing requirements.

After gaining work experience, some physical therapists choose to become a board-certified specialist. The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties offers certification in clinical specialty areas of physical therapy, such as orthopedics, sports, and geriatrics. Board specialist certification requires passing an exam and completing clinical work in the specialty area.

Important Qualities

Communication skills. Physical therapists must clearly explain treatment programs, motivate patients, and listen to patients’ concerns in order to provide effective therapy.

Compassion. Physical therapists spend a lot of time interacting with patients, so they should have a desire to help people. They work with people who are in pain and must have empathy for their patients.

Detail oriented. Like other healthcare providers, physical therapists should have strong analytic and observational skills to diagnose a patient’s problem, evaluate treatments, and provide safe, effective care.

Dexterity. Physical therapists must use their hands to provide manual therapy and therapeutic exercises. They should feel comfortable massaging and otherwise physically assisting patients.

Physical stamina. Physical therapists spend much of their time on their feet, moving to demonstrate proper techniques and to help patients perform exercises. They should enjoy physical activity.

Resourcefulness. Physical therapists customize treatment plans for patients. They must be flexible and adapt plans of care to meet the needs of each patient.

Time-management skills. Physical therapists typically treat several patients each day. They must be able to provide appropriate care to patients as well as complete administrative tasks, such as documenting patient progress.

Pay About this section

Physical Therapists

Median annual wages, May 2021

Physical therapists

$95,620

Healthcare diagnosing or treating practitioners

$81,270

Total, all occupations

$45,760

 

The median annual wage for physical therapists was $95,620 in May 2021. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $61,930, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $127,110.

In May 2021, the median annual wages for physical therapists in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Home healthcare services $99,800
Nursing and residential care facilities 99,640
Hospitals; state, local, and private 99,040
Offices of physical, occupational and speech therapists, and audiologists 79,470

Most physical therapists work full time. Although most therapists work during normal business hours, some work evenings or weekends.

Job Outlook About this section

Physical Therapists

Percent change in employment, projected 2020-30

Physical therapists

21%

Healthcare diagnosing or treating practitioners

12%

Total, all occupations

8%

 

Employment of physical therapists is projected to grow 21 percent from 2020 to 2030, much faster than the average for all occupations.

About 15,600 openings for physical therapists are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.

Employment

Demand for physical therapy will come in part from the large number of aging baby boomers, who are staying more active later in life than their counterparts of previous generations. Older people are more likely to experience heart attacks, strokes, and mobility-related injuries that require physical therapy for rehabilitation.

In addition, a number of chronic conditions, such as diabetes and obesity, have become more prevalent in recent years. More physical therapists will be needed to help these patients maintain their mobility and manage the effects of chronic conditions.

Advances in medical technology have increased the use of outpatient surgery to treat a variety of injuries and illnesses. Medical and technological developments also are expected to permit survival of a greater number of trauma victims and newborns with birth defects, creating additional demand for rehabilitative care. Physical therapists will continue to help these patients recover from surgery.

Employment projections data for physical therapists, 2020-30
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2020 Projected Employment, 2030 Change, 2020-30 Employment by Industry
Percent Numeric

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program

Physical therapists

29-1123 239,200 288,300 21 49,100 Get data

Contacts for More Information About this section

For more information about physical therapists, visit

American Physical Therapy Association

For more information about accredited physical therapy programs, visit

Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education

For more information about state licensing requirements and about the National Physical Therapy Exam, visit

Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy

For more information about certification, visit

American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties

For more information about residency and fellowship opportunities, visit

American Board of Physical Therapy Residency and Fellowship Education

For more information about how to apply to DPT programs, visit

Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service (PTCAS)

CareerOneStop

For a career video on physical therapists, visit

Physical Therapists

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Physical Therapists

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