October 26, 2023
How to Become a Physical Therapist

Physical therapists (PTs) are healthcare practitioners who help patients improve their movement abilities. They do this through exercise, stretching, hands-on treatments, and the use of various devices and equipment. In addition to improving mobility, a PT helps manage and relieve pain caused by injuries, disabilities, or other illnesses.

The healthcare services PTs provide can drastically improve the quality of their patient’s lives. If working one-on-one with patients in a medical environment interests you, becoming a physical therapist might be a great career option.

This article will provide a complete overview of everything you need to know about being a physical therapist, including what they do, salary information, how to become one, education requirements, career outlook, and more! 

We Found The Following Schools with Online Physical Therapy Aide Programs

Part One What is a Physical Therapist?

Physical therapists are healthcare professionals who work one-on-one with patients experiencing mobility challenges and pain. Patients are usually referred to physical therapists by physicians after being diagnosed with a medical condition. But physical therapists also conduct their own physical examination to understand the patient’s overall condition better. From there, they craft a personalized treatment plan.

PTs have expertise in a variety of bodily systems. Most of their work involves the musculoskeletal system. However, it can also include neurological, cardiopulmonary (heart and lung), and integumentary (skin) systems.

Physical therapists also teach exercises appropriate to their patient’s condition and use equipment and other hands-on techniques to provide relief and speed healing. Some of the benefits that a PT can provide their patient with include:

  1. Restoring range of motion
  2. Improving balance and posture
  3. Boosting strength, coordination, fitness, and mobility
  4. Addressing physical issues induced by obesity
  5. Assisting with chronic problems such as back pain
  6. Educating and empowering patients with exercises and stretches to improve healing on their own

The exercises, stretches, manual therapy, and body mechanic lessons a PT introduces can also prevent sports injuries and enhance athletic performance. 

PTs often work within a multidisciplinary team of other healthcare professionals, including physical therapy assistants (PTAs), nurses, and physicians. They also may help teach occupational therapy movements to ensure patients can perform activities of daily living at home.

Part Two What Do Physical Therapists Do?

Physical therapists are experts in movement and range of motion. They help injured or disabled people of all ages enhance their physical abilities with a combination of exercise, education, and hands-on care. 

They may also work with individuals who, though generally healthy, seek assistance in enhancing overall wellness and achieving their fitness goals.

Physical Therapist Responsibilities 

Physical therapists start by examining the patient. From there, PTs can facilitate a treatment plan tailored to the patient’s needs. Some of the patient care responsibilities and duties they perform also include: 

  1. Reviewing patients’ medical histories and current symptoms
  2. Observing patients’ movements
  3. Devising treatment plans
  4. Sharing goals and anticipated outcomes with patients
  5. Demonstrating and assigning exercises and stretches to do at home
  6. Using hands-on therapy and equipment to increase mobility and function
  7. Recording patient progress
  8. Modifying treatment plans as needed

Physical Therapist vs Occupational Therapist: What's the Difference?

The main difference between physical and occupational therapy is that physical therapists work on improving how well patients can move their bodies. Conversely, occupational therapists focus on improving how well patients perform daily tasks. Though subtle, these differences impact physical vs occupational therapy goals, approaches, and treatment plans.

Check out our comprehensive guide to learn more about how to become an occupational therapist.

Where Do Physical Therapists Work?

You can find PTs working in a variety of healthcare environments, including:

  1. Hospitals
  2. Nursing homes
  3. Schools
  4. Sports and fitness facilities
  5. Outpatient clinics
  6. Private practices
  7. Home health agencies
  8. Workplaces 

Physical Therapist Specialties

PTs may specialize in different treatments or conditions, including oncology, orthopedics, or sports medicine. They also work with diverse patient populations - from pediatrics to geriatrics.

We Found The Following Schools with Online Physical Therapy Aide Programs

Part Three Physical Therapist Salary 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for physical therapists in May 2020 was $91,010, or $43.75 per hour. The highest 10 percent in the profession earned more than $126,780.

Highest Paying States for Physical Therapists

The states that pay the highest mean annual salary are:

  1. California - $114,230, or $54.92/hr
  2. Nevada - $105,880, or $50.90/hr
  3. New Jersey - $105,430, or $50.69/hr
  4. Alaska - $104,470, or $ 50.23/hr
  5. Connecticut - $103,920, or $49.96/hr

Physical Therapist Salary Factors

Many other factors determine salary, including your level of education and years of experience. Most physical therapists are employed full-time and receive additional benefits, including paid time off, health insurance, and tuition reimbursement.

Part Four How to Become a Physical Therapist 

If you want to become a physical therapist, you’ll have to earn both:

  1. A bachelor’s degree in a science-related field, and 
  2. Complete a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program with accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE)

Physical Therapy Degree Programs

Doctor of Physical Therapy programs generally take three years to complete. There are two ways to get your DPT education.

DPT Option #1: Bachelor’s Degree to DPT Program

The most common route involves earning a 4-year bachelor’s degree in a science-related field. Undergraduate majors most common for those who go to a DPT program include kinesiology, biology, or exercise science.

Then students can apply for and complete a DPT program. This route takes a total of seven years.

DPT Option #2: Accelerated DPT Program

Attend an accelerated 3+3 curriculum or freshman entry program. This route provides three years of required undergraduate courses followed by a three-year DPT program. 

This option can be an excellent route for students who already know that they want to become a PT upon graduating from high school. These programs often guarantee admission into a DPT program following the successful completion of specific undergraduate courses. These programs take a minimum of 6 years to complete.

DPT Application Process

The American Physical Therapy Association created the Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service to facilitate the application process. This simple web-based application takes one completion and then is used to apply to multiple accredited programs.

DPT Coursework

PT coursework will include classroom education in the following subjects:

  1. Sociology
  2. Behavioral science
  3. Anatomy
  4. Biology
  5. Physiology
  6. Biomechanics
  7. Kinesiology
  8. Neuroscience Pharmacology
  9. Pulmonary system
  10. Cardiovascular system
  11. Endocrine and metabolic systems
  12. Musculoskeletal systems
  13. Communication
  14. Evidence-based practice

Students will also spend a minimum of 27 weeks gaining hands-on clinical experience as a part of their studies.

Physical Therapy Licensure

After completing a DPT program, graduates must pass a state licensure exam required by their state before practicing as a professional. Every state has its own licensing and continuing education, and it is essential to research your state’s requirements.

Part Five What is the Career Outlook for Physical Therapists?

The BLS projects that opportunities for physical therapists will grow by 18% over the next several years. 

Several factors are responsible for the increased projected job openings, including:

  1. Increased use of outpatient surgery followed by rehabilitation and therapy
  2. A greater understanding of the impact that therapeutic protocols can have on the disabled and victims of trauma
  3. The aging of the baby boom generation leading to more required interventions
  4. Expanding interest in improving health, mobility, and function on the part of the general public. 

Physical therapy can address all of these needs, improving quality of life and helping people live healthy and active lives.

Part Six What are the Continuing Education Requirements for Physical Therapists?

Every state has its own licensing board that regulates physical therapists. States also have independent policies and procedures related to continuing education requirements. 

The  Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT)maintains a list of each state’s licensing authorities, including links to each state’s practice act. 

Part Seven Where Can I Learn More About Becoming a Physical Therapist?

Several professional PT organizations provide resources about career opportunities, events, and more, such as:

  1. American Physical Therapist Association (APTA)
  2. American Council of Academic Physical Therapy (ACAPT)
  3. American Academy of Orthopaedic Manual Physical Therapists (AAOMPT)
  4. World Confederation for Physical Therapy (WCPT)

We Found The Following Schools with Online Physical Therapy Aide Programs

Part Eight Physical Therapist FAQs

  •  What does a physical therapist do?

    • Physical therapists work one-on-one with patients to improve mobility and function and to relieve pain. The individuals that they treat may be recovering from illness, disabled by congenital disabilities, suffering from injuries, experiencing neurological traumas, or other debilitating physical conditions.
  • How many years does it take to become a physical therapist?

    • In most cases, it takes seven years to become a physical therapist. However, some programs offer expedited programs. These programs include a 3-year undergraduate program and a 3-year DPT school.
  • What is it like to be a physical therapist?

    • A career as a physical therapist is both challenging and rewarding. The job can also be physically demanding because PTs provide hands-on treatment and often demonstrate exercises to patients. Most physical therapists enjoy watching their patients make healthy improvements in their quality of life.
  • How much money does a physical therapist make a month?

    • According to the BLS, the average median salary for a physical therapist is $97,720 which equals about $8,143 per month. 
  • Is physical therapy a stressful job?

    • Being a physical therapist can be a stressful job. PTs help people during some of the most challenging times of their lives. For example, many patients may be recovering from a debilitating injury or illness and experiencing some suffering. However, the profession can also be rewarding as patients achieve their treatment goals, have pain relief, and gain mobility and function.
  • Is it hard to become a physical therapist?

    • Becoming a physical therapist requires earning an undergraduate degree and pursuing a rigorous three-year Doctor of Physical Therapy program. The course load is challenging and requires at least six to seven years of study. Also, PTs must have excellent communication skills and possess empathy to succeed in the field.
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