What Does a Physical Therapist Do?

Physical therapist applying orthopedic adjuvant
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A physical therapist (PT) is an allied health professional whose job is to rehabilitate patients who are recovering from surgery, who have been injured or incapacitated in some way, or who have been left with physical deficits due to an illness or a stroke.

What Physical Therapists Do

Physical therapy can be short-term or long-term depending on the severity of the patient’s condition. For example, a patient who has had a relatively routine knee surgery may need only a few sessions of physical therapy to restore full range of motion in the knee. A more severely injured patient, or one who has suffered a stroke, on the other hand, may require months of physical therapy just to regain the strength and coordination needed to stand and walk.

Physical therapists may see patients in a medical office, such as an orthopedic surgery practice, or a hospital setting. Typically a patient will be referred to a PT by a physician, who prescribes the physical therapy treatment and follows up to assess the patient’s progress regularly after one or more courses of therapy.

A physical therapy room is equipped with a variety of equipment—such as weights, mats, treadmills, and other specialized equipment designed to improve a patient's motor skills, sensory perception, and muscle strength.

In some cases, PTs may use one of a variety of electrical stimulation devices as an adjunct to physical exercises in order to relieve pain or address other issues.

Skills Required by Physical Therapists

According to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), the following are some of the skills required to become a physical therapist. You must:

  • Be able to assess and review all systems of the body as needed to determine the need for physical therapy, and the scope of therapy needed as well as the patient's limitations
  • Know how to perform tests to characterize and quantify range of motion, sensory integrity (sharp/dull, hot/cold, pressure, and vibration), neuromotor skills, and reflexes
  • Use clinical reasoning and decision-making to determine a diagnosis and prognosis
  • Use goal-setting skills to set a plan of care in action
  • Know how to administer first aid and perform CPR in the case of an emergency
  • Know how and when to use orthotics, prosthetics, walkers, wheelchairs, and other supportive devices
  • Perform manual therapy, tissue massage, traction, and manipulation
  • Possess the communication skills necessary for patient/family education, as well as consultations with other health professionals
  • Master practice management skills such as billing and coding for proper reimbursement, documentation of medical records, supervising staff such as physical therapy assistants, and quality improvement
  • Possess values such as accountability, integrity, compassion, and responsibility

Training to Become a Physical Therapist

There are several types of degrees a physical therapist may hold. Before the end of the 1990s, only a bachelor's degree in physical therapy was required, but students entering the field today are required to have a doctorate level degree. The Commission of Accreditation of Physical Therapist Education requires that your school offer you a doctorate level degree in order to sit for your state licensure examination after graduation.

There are many physical therapy schools throughout the United States. To apply to one, it is helpful to use the Physical Therapy Central Application Service. This helps to organize your applications into one centralized online area. The APTA can provide detailed information about schools in this field.

As with most health careers, the coursework required is heavy in the sciences including biology, chemistry, and anatomy.

The national average salary for entry-level physical therapists is about $53,000. Typically, your salary will increase over the course of your career.

A Word From Verywell

Physical therapists are in high demand and the potential for job growth is huge. Job satisfaction is generally high among physical therapists as well; helping people regain their physical independence and interacting with patients can be a very rewarding experience.

Physical therapy is physically demanding work—for you as well as for your patients, As a PT, you're always moving: walking, lifting patients, and performing various manipulations and maneuvers that require physical strength and fitness—so if you prefer to sit behind a desk, a career as a PT is not likely to be right for you.

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