What Does a Physical Therapist Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

A Day in the Life of a Physical Therapist

Evan Polenghi/The Balance

Physical therapists help people who have been in accidents, have suffered a sports or work-related injury, or experience conditions such as lower back pain, arthritis, heart disease, and cerebral palsy. They use a variety of techniques, including exercises and localized movements of joints and muscles, to restore function, improve mobility, relieve pain, and prevent or limit permanent physical disabilities in their patients.

Physical therapists (PTs) supervise physical therapist assistants and physical therapy aides and, along with them, are members of a team that also includes doctors, occupational therapists, and speech pathologists.

Physical Therapist Duties & Responsibilities

This job generally requires the ability to do the following tasks:

  • Direct patient care under the authorization of a physician.
  • Create and update treatment plans.
  • Test and measure patients' strength and flexibility.
  • Advise and consult with patients, family members, physicians, and other medical professionals on the care and treatment of patients.
  • Complete appropriate paperwork as needed.
  • Oversee physical therapist assistants and physical therapy aides.

The type of care a physical therapist provides is determined by the needs of individual patients. Some PTs develop specializations, such as cardiac, geriatric, or pediatric patients. Physical therapists may also develop programs that encourage patients to adopt overall healthier lifestyles.

Physical Therapist Salary

A physical therapist's salary varies according to the geographical area, specialization, and the number of years on the job. Hourly wages are based on a 40-hour workweek.

  • Median Annual Salary: $87,930 ($42.27/hour)
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: More than $123,350 ($59.30/hour)
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: Less than $60,390 ($29.03/hour)

Education, Training, & Certification

Aspiring physical therapists must graduate from a physical therapist educational program with a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. Candidates for that degree generally have a bachelor's degree in a related discipline and typically take three years to obtain their DPT. Some schools offer a six- or seven-year program in which students obtain both a bachelor's degree and a DPT.

  • Licensing: All U.S. states require physical therapists to be licensed. They have to take the National Physical Therapy Exam, which is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT).
  • Residencies and fellowships: PTs may choose to enter a clinical residency program in which they receive specialized training and gain experience in a particular area of care. They can also go on to pursue a fellowship in the same specialization. The American Board of Physical Therapy Residency and Fellowship Education, which accredits residency and fellowship programs, provides a directory of these programs, listed according to the area of specialization, on its website.
  • Continuing education: PTs must take continuing education classes and attend workshops to maintain their license. Specific requirements vary by state. Find a list of state licensing authorities¬†on the FSBPT website.

Physical Therapist Skills & Competencies

Successful physical therapists need to have the following skills and traits to perform their job successfully:

  • Active listening: They must be able to listen carefully to patients' questions and concerns about their treatment.
  • Verbal communication: Patients must be able to understand their instructions for treatment to be successful.
  • Service orientation: Success in any healthcare career requires a strong desire to help people.
  • Physical strength: To manipulate patients' bodies and move them around, they must be physically strong.

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Job Outlook

The number of physical therapist jobs is expected to grow 28% from 2016 to 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). That's much faster than the average for all occupations.

The BLS cites the large number of aging baby boomers who will need physical therapy treatments and the increased prevalence of diabetes and obesity that will cause patients to seek help maintaining their mobility.

Work Environment

Physical therapists can work in PT practices, hospitals, nursing homes, and rehabilitation centers. The BLS notes that physical therapists spend much of their time on their feet. They are vulnerable to back injuries and so must be careful to use proper techniques when lifting and moving patients.

Work Schedule

Most PTs work full-time. They typically work a regular workweek, but some may work nights, weekends, or holidays.

How to Get the Job

WRITE A TARGETED RESUME AND COVER LETTER

Create a resume and cover letter that play up your strengths and make HR representatives and hiring managers eager to interview you.

APPLY

The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) lists job openings nationwide.

Comparing Similar Jobs

People interested in becoming physical therapists might also consider the following jobs. The figures provided are median annual salaries: