People who have been in accidents or have disabling conditions such as low-back pain, arthritis, heart disease, fractures, head injuries and cerebral palsy turn to physical therapists for help. These health professionals use a variety of techniques, called modalities, to restore function, improve mobility, relieve pain and prevent or limit permanent physical disabilities in their patients. PTs supervise physical therapist assistants and aides and along with them are members of a team that also includes doctors and surgeons, with whom they consult.
In 2010, physical therapists (PTs) held about 199,000 jobs in the US. Most of them worked full-time, but more than a quarter held part-time positions.
PTs typically work in the offices of other health practitioners or in hospitals. Home health care agencies and nursing and residential care facilities employ many others. Some are self employed.
In order to become a physical therapist, you must first graduate from a physical therapist educational program with a master's or doctoral degree. Expect to take courses in biology, chemistry and physics. Your coursework will also include specialized courses such as biomechanics, neuroanatomy, human growth and development, manifestations of disease, examination techniques and therapeutic procedures.
All states in the US require physical therapists to be licensed. To become licensed you will have to take the National Physical Therapy Exam which the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT) administers. Licensed PTs must take continuing education classes and attend workshops to maintain licensure. Specific requirements vary by state, so it is a good idea to contact individual State Licensing Authorities.
In addition to the formal qualifications described previously, you will not be successful in this occupation if you don't have certain traits. Good dexterity will allow you to perform manual therapy. Physical stamina will let you stand on your feet and move around a lot, as will be required. Dealing with people who are in pain requires compassion and good interpersonal skills. Finally, you must have strong analytical and observational skills in order to diagnose patients' problems and evaluate the effectiveness of the treatment you administer.
The job outlook for physical therapists is excellent. This occupation is projected to experience faster growth, through 2020, than other occupations requiring at least a master's degree (The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).
In 2011, physical therapists earned a median annual salary of $78,270. During the same time period, median hourly wages were $37.63.
Use the Salary Wizard at Salary.com to find out how much physical therapists currently earn in your city.
A Day in a Physical Therapist's Life:
On a typical day a physical therapist will:
- examine patients' medical histories
- test and measure patients' strength, range of motion, balance and coordination, posture, muscle performance, respiration and motor function
- determine whether a patient is able to be independent and reintegrate into the community or workplace after injury or illness
- develop treatment plans describing a treatment strategy, its purpose and its anticipated outcome
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition, Physical Therapists, on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physical-therapists.htm (visited August 28, 2012).
Employment and Training Administration, U.S. Department of Labor, O*NET Online, Physical Therapists, on the Internet at http://www.onetonline.org/link/details/29-1123.00 (visited August 28, 2012).