image source: Freepik

A physical therapist plays a huge role in ensuring that patients return to their optimal functioning level after an accident or an illness. They can perform a wide range of tasks such as teaching people to walk again and relieving the pain associated with certain conditions, such as severe arthritis. The daily tasks and responsibilities of physical therapists can be challenging, but that’s what they have to sacrifice for an immensely rewarding career.

This is especially true if you are interested in pursuing a career where you’ll practice hands-on care and want to empower people in the healing process and in bettering their overall health. So what does it take to become a physical therapist? This article highlights the career overview of physical therapists, the educational requirements, the career path, and salary information.

Physical Ther​apist Career Overview

physical therapist exercises a leg of patientimage source: Freepik

They aid people with physical illnesses or injuries to regain their range of movement and also control their pain. They help individuals who have lost their motor function due to age, illness, or accidents, and determining the root cause of the trauma. They create a rehabilitation plan and counsel them through the recovery process. The plans support strength training, stretching, and physical manipulation to help them recover.

Physical therapists are experts in what they do and often educate patients and their families or guardians about what is possible and keep the patients motivated during the ongoing therapy. They are involved with tracking the progress made by the patients over time and report their progress to them and their families.

In the initial appointment of the patient, the therapists ask about the patient’s medical history and evaluate the symptoms. After doing this, the therapist will develop a rehabilitation plan that aligns with the needs and goals of the patient. They are involved in every step of the treatment process. A physical therapist works directly with the patient to teach them a variety of functional tasks and exercises that are mainly intended for strengthening or stretching muscles and also for alleviating pain associated with the illness or injury.

Duties and Responsibilities of Physical Therapists

Physical therapists diagnose any dysfunctions as far as the patient’s movement is concerned. With this information, they come up with a treatment plan. They consult with patients or their families so that they can learn about the patient’s symptoms and physical condition in order to do so. Physical therapists also teach patients how to properly observe the treatment or rehabilitation plan and particularly how to use the recommended therapeutic exercise techniques, and they assist patients with the use of moving aids, for example, walkers, and/or wheelchairs.  

Additionally, they provide stimulation or massage the affected limb to promote faster healing, advise the patient and family about treatment options and exercises for at home, and they maintain and keep patient records and keep track of the progress and whether goals have been met.

Work Environment

A physical therapist is an important member of a healthcare team. Therapists work together with other medical practitioners in helping patients with both chronic and acute conditions in several settings. They can wok in a nursing home, hospital, or a rehabilitation facility. In these settings, the therapist coordinates the treatment plan of patients with a variety of care providers on site, including occupational therapists, nurses, physicians, physical therapy assistants, and speech therapists.

The therapist may also work in an outpatient clinic where they communicate with the patient’s primary care provider in developing and modifying treatment plans. They may also work with massage therapists or supervise physical therapy assistants or exercise specialists. Therapists can also work in schools, research centers, sports and fitness centers, government organizations, and home health services. They usually have a common goal of ensuring that the patients gain their range of motion and return to performing duties and tasks normally.

A physical therapist draws on many disciplines to perform their job duties. Therapists apply knowledge of exercise physiology, neuroscience, kinesiology, biomechanics, anatomy, cardiovascular and pulmonary systems, and pharmacology among other areas. For you to succeed in the career, you will need to be an effective communicator and have strong interpersonal skills since you’ll be interacting with patients and their families. You will also need to have compassion and patience for you to care for the patients optimally and motivate them to achieve their goals.

On average, therapists tend to spend more one-on-one time with patients compared to other types of healthcare practitioners. This means that they have to build trust and a positive rapport.

Unlike physicians and nurses, physical therapists do not have to work overnight shifts. They usually work from 8 am to 5 pm although some may start earlier or work late depending on the work demands to accommodate the busy schedules of patients. Therapists who work in nursing homes or hospitals may need to work hours on the weekends or even on holidays to provide patients with continuous care.

Educational Requirements

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The road to becoming a physical therapist (PT) entails a thorough education and clinical experience so you can develop skills and knowledge of dealing with all types of patients. The education of a PT is designed to prepare you to work in any setting after graduating. Additional specialization and training are also available if you would like to build your expertise in a certain area.

In the past, one could qualify as a PT with a bachelor’s or master’s degree. However, students should complete advanced training to enter the field. The American Physical Therapy Association states that professional physical therapy programs only offer the Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree to new students as master’s programs are no longer offered. The DPT program takes three years. The program usually begins with classroom-based learning and then transitions to clinical experience that allows students to gain hands-on skills.

You should ensure that you enroll in a DPT program that has been accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). Besides, you will also need to pass the national therapy exam and apply for a state license for you to practice. After graduating, you can apply for a fellowship or residency program to develop expertise in a certain area. The program provides advanced mentorship and training and can fast track you to earn a board certification.

Career Path & Salary

After graduating from a DPT program and enrolling for a residency or fellowship program, you should obtain certification for you to practice. The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialists points out that board certifications can help therapists develop specialized skills, knowledge, and build a stronger reputation in the field. This can open up new leadership and employment opportunities as well as a higher pay.

Board certifications narrow down to the following areas:

  • Pediatrics
  • Cardiovascular and Pulmonary
  • Orthopedics
  • Geriatrics
  • Women’s Health
  • Neurology
  • Clinical Electrophysiology
  • Sports Physical Therapy

To be board certified, licensed therapists must complete 2,000 hours of clinical experience in a specialty area and pass a written exam.

Career Paths

The physical therapy career path comes with a variety of opportunities for advancement. You can practice in several healthcare settings and can develop one or more specialties as you advance your knowledge. You can even take on a management role, work as an educator, or even obtain a position as a professor. The specializations include:

  • Orthopedic PTs: focuses on the musculoskeletal system
  • Geriatric PTs: concentrates on the needs of older adults
  • Neurological PTs: treats conditions and impairments related to nervous system
  • Cardiopulmonary PTs: helps patients who have diseases of heart and lungs
  • Pediatric PTs: serves infants, toddlers, children, and teens

You are required to renew the license and also pursue continuing education.

Salary and Job Outlook

According to the BLS, the 2017 median pay for physical therapists was $86,850 annually or $41.76 per hour. There were 239,800 jobs in 2016. The BLS reports that the job outlook between 2016 and 2026 will grow by up to 28%, which is faster than the average growth for all professions. This translates to an additional 67,100 jobs within the same period.

The demand for physical therapy will come from aging baby boomers who want to stay active later in life but are more susceptible to conditions such as a stroke. Therapists will also be needed in treating individuals with mobility issues due to chronic conditions, such as obesity and diabetes.


physical therapist assisting old woman stretching with green exercise bandimage source: Freepik

If you are looking for a career where you’ll derive personal fulfillment each day, you should become a physical therapist. In fact, Forbes ranked the physical therapy profession as one of the top 10 happiest jobs. This is because you will usually spend time socially interacting with patients, families, and other medical practitioners. It is rewarding to help others and see them get better. You will work in different settings including hospitals, outpatient clinics, nursing homes, research centers, and schools.

However, you will need to meet educational and certification requirements. You should graduate from a DPT program, get a state license, and earn board certification. You can specialize in one or more areas as you advance your knowledge. The salary is great as you will earn about $86,850 annually. The job outlook is also promising, as over 60,000 additional jobs will be created between 2016 and 2026. We hope that this article has adequately addressed the career overview of physical therapists, the educational requirements, and the career path and salary information.