Physical Therapist Career

Physical therapists, formerly called physiotherapists, are health care specialists who restore mobility, alleviate pain and suffering, and work to prevent permanent disability for their patients. They test and measure the functions of the musculoskeletal, neurological, pulmo­nary, and cardiovascular systems and treat problems in these systems caused by illness, injury, or birth defect. Physical therapists provide preventive, restorative, and rehabilitative treatment for their patients. Approxi­mately 155,000 physical therapists are licensed to prac­tice in the United States.

Physical Therapist Career History

The practice of physical therapy has developed as our knowledge of medicine and our understanding of the functions of the human body have grown. During the first part of the 20th century, there were tremendous strides in medical practice in general. The wartime experiences of medical teams who had to rehabilitate seriously injured soldiers contributed to the medical use and acceptance of physical therapy practices. The polio epidemic in the 1940s, which left many victims paralyzed, also led to the demand for improved physi­cal therapy.

Physical Therapist CareerA professional association was organized in 1921, and physical therapy began to achieve professional stature. The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) now serves a membership of more than 66,000 physical therapists, physical therapy assistants, and students.

Today the use of physical therapy has expanded beyond hospitals, where it has been traditionally prac­ticed. Physical therapists now are working in private practices, nursing homes, sports facilities, home health agencies, public and private schools, academic institu­tions, hospices, and in industrial physical therapy pro­grams, a reflection of their versatility of skills and the public’s need for comprehensive health care.

Physical Therapist Job Description

To initiate a program of physical therapy, the physical therapist consults the individual’s medical history, exam­ines the patient and identifies problems, confers with the physician or other health care professionals involved in the patient’s care, establishes objectives and treatment goals that are consistent with the patient’s needs, and determines the methods for accomplishing the objectives.

Treatment goals established by the physical therapist include preventing disability, relieving pain, and restor­ing function. In the presence of illness or injury, the ulti­mate goal is to assist the patient’s physical recovery and reentry into the community, home, and work environ­ment at the highest level of independence and self-suf­ficiency possible.

To aid and maintain recovery, the physical therapist also provides education to involve patients in their own care. The educational program may include exercises, posture reeducation, and relaxation practices. In many cases, the patient’s family is involved in the educational program to provide emotional support or physical assis­tance as needed. These activities evolve into a continuum of self-care when the patient is discharged from the phys­ical therapy program.

Physical therapists provide care for many types of patients of all ages. This includes working with burn vic­tims to prevent abnormal scarring and loss of movement, with stroke victims to regain movement and indepen­dent living, with cancer patients to relieve discomfort, and with cardiac patients to improve endurance and achieve independence. Physical therapists also provide preventive exercise programs, postural improvement, and physical conditioning to individuals who perceive the need to promote their own health and well-being.

Physical therapists should have a creative approach to their work. No two patients respond the same way to exactly the same kind of treatment. The challenge is to find the right way to encourage the patient to make prog­ress, to respond to treatment, to feel a sense of achieve­ment, and to refuse to become discouraged if progress is slow.

Many physical therapists acquire specialized knowl­edge through clinical experience and educational preparation in specialty areas of practice, such as cardio-pulmonary physical therapy, clinical electrophysiologic physical therapy, neurologic physical therapy, orthope­dic physical therapy, pediatric physical therapy, geriatric physical therapy, and sports physical therapy.

Physical Therapist Career Requirements

High School

While you are in high school you can begin to prepare for this career by taking college preparatory classes. These should include biology, chemistry, physics, health, and mathematics. Because so much of this work involves direct contact with clients, you should improve your people skills as well as your communication skills by taking psychology, sociology, and English classes. Also, take computer science courses so that you are computer literate. Statistics, history, and a foreign language are also beneficial.

Postsecondary Training

Physical therapists attain their professional skills through extensive education that takes place both in the class­room and in clinical settings. You should attend a school accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physi­cal Therapy Education (CAPTE) to receive the most thorough education. CAPTE now only accredits schools offering postbaccalaureate degrees (master’s and doctorate degrees), and you will need one of these degrees to practice physical therapy. Previously, CAPTE had accredited bach­elor’s degree programs; however, this change was made to give students an appropriate amount of time to study liberal arts as well as a physical therapy curriculum. Course work should include classes in the humanities as well as those geared for the profession, such as anatomy, human growth and development, and therapeutic procedures. Clinical experience is done as supervised fieldwork in such settings as hospitals, home care agencies, and nursing homes. According to APTA, there are 68 accredited programs offering master’s degrees and 142 offering doctorates in physical therapy. Visit the APTA website ( for a listing of accredited programs.

Certification or Licensing

Specialist certification of physi­cal therapists, while not a requirement for employment, is a desirable advanced credential. The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties, an appointed group of the American Physical Therapy Association, certifies physical therapists who demon­strate specialized knowledge and advanced clinical proficiency in a specialty area of physical therapy practice and who pass a certify­ing examination. The seven areas of specialization are cardiovas­cular and pulmonary, clinical electrophysiologic, neurologic, orthopaedics, pediatrics, geriatrics, and sports.

Upon graduating from an accredited physical therapy educational program, all physical therapists must successfully complete a national examination. Other licens­ing requirements vary by state. You will need to check with the licensing board of the state in which you hope to work for specific information.

Other Requirements

Successful physical therapists enjoy working with people and helping others to feel better, both physically and emotionally. They need creativity and patience to deter­mine a treatment plan for each client and to help them achieve treatment goals. Physical therapists must also be committed to lifelong learning because new develop­ments in technology and medicine mean that therapists must continually update their knowledge. It is also a plus to have a positive attitude and an outgoing personality.

Exploring Physical Therapist Career

Your first step in exploring this field could be to talk with a physical therapist in your community about the work. Your school guidance counselor should be able to help you arrange for such an informational interview. Hands-on experience is important to get because schools that you apply to will take this into consideration. This experi­ence will also help you decide how well you like working with people who are sometimes in pain or confused. One possibility is to volunteer at a physical therapy program. If such an opening is not available, try volunteering at a local hospital, nursing home, or other care facility to gain experience working in these settings. You can also look for volunteer opportunities or summer jobs at camps for the disabled. Paid part-time positions may also be available as a hospital orderly or aide to a physical therapist.


Hospitals employ about 60 percent of physical therapists. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the rest work in settings such as offices of physicians, private physical therapy offices, community health centers, sports facilities, nursing homes, and schools. Physical therapists may be involved in research or teach at colleges and universities. Veterans Administration hospitals and other government agencies also hire physical therapists. Some physical thera­pists are self-employed. Approximately 155,000 physical therapists are employed in the United States.

Starting Out

Physical therapy graduates may obtain jobs through their college placement offices or by answering ads in any of a variety of professional journals. They can apply in person or send letters and resumes to hospitals, medical centers, rehabilitation facilities, and other places that hire physi­cal therapists. Some find jobs through the APTA.


In a hospital or other health care facility, one may rise from being a staff physical therapist to being the chief physical therapist and then director of the department. Administrative responsibilities are usually given to those physical therapists who have had several years of experi­ence plus the personal qualities that prepare them for undertaking this kind of assignment.

After serving in a hospital or other institution for several years, some physical therapists open up their own practices or go into a group practice, with both often paying higher salaries.


Salaries for physical therapists depend on experience and type of employer. Physical therapists earned an annual average salary of $60,180 in 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $42,010. Fifty percent averaged between $50,330 and $71,760; the top 10 percent earned $88,580 or more a year. In 2005, the top paying industries for physical therapists were: Management and technical consulting services, $101,240; home health care services, $72,070; child day care services, $71,910; employment services, $68,390; and other amusement and recreation industries, $67,760.

Work Environment

The typical physical therapist works approximately 40 hours each week, including Saturdays. Patient sessions may be brief or may last an hour or more. Usually, treatment is on an individual basis, but occasionally therapy may be given in groups when the patients’ problems are similar.

Physical Therapist Career Outlook

Employment for physical therapists is expected to grow much faster than the average through 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. One reason for this strong growth is the fact that the median age of the Ameri­can population is rising, and this older demographic group develops a higher number of medical conditions that cause physical pain and disability. Also, advances in medical technology save more people, who then require physical therapy. For example, as more trauma victims and newborns with birth defects survive, the need for physical therapists will rise. Another reason is the public’s growing interest in physical fitness, which has resulted in an increasing number of athletic injuries requiring physical therapy. In industry and fitness centers, a grow­ing interest in pain and injury prevention also has created new opportunities for physical therapists.

Employment prospects for physical therapists should continue to be excellent into the next decade. If enrollment in accredited physical therapy programs remains at the current level, there will be more openings for physical therapists than qualified individuals to fill them.

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