Physical therapists (PTs) help patients restore function, improve mobility, relieve pain, and prevent or limit permanent physical disabilities. They often focus on overall fitness, and they work with a wide range of patients, from accident victims to people with lower back pain or cerebral palsy. After examining a patients’ medical history, physical therapists perform a series of tests that may include strength, range of motion, balance and coordination, posture, muscle performance, respiration, and motor function. Then they create treatment plans and implement those plans with the assistance of physical therapist assistants.
Physical therapists help patients to use their own muscles, increase their flexibility, and add to their range of motion. After this phase, they move on to different sets of exercises that improve strength, balance, coordination, and endurance. The overall goal in these situations is to help the patient function more effectively at home and work. Physical therapists use a variety of tools to assist them in their work including, electrical stimulation, hot packs or cold compresses, ultrasound, traction, or deep-tissue massage. They also work with patients to help them learn how to use equipment such as crutches, prostheses, and wheelchairs. Physical therapists document a patients’ progress and often consult with other health professionals, such as physicians, nurses, social workers, and audiologists.
Physical therapists should be compassionate and have a passion for helping other people. They need to have well-developed interpersonal communication skills so they can effectively educate patients and their families regarding treatments.
In 2002, physical therapists earned a median annual salary of $57,330. Earnings ranged from the lowest 10%, who earned less than $40,200, to the highest 10%, who earned more than $86,260. The following shows the median annual salaries for the industries employing the highest numbers of physical therapists:
- Home health care services — $62,480
- Offices of other health practitioners — $58,510
- Offices of physicians — $57,640
- Nursing care facilities — $57,570
- General medical and surgical hospitals — $57,200
Training and Education
In all U.S. States, physical therapists must graduate from an accredited physical therapist educational program and pass a licensure exam before they can begin practicing. There are about 200 accredited physical therapist programs in the U.S., offering both master’s and doctoral degrees. These programs begin by covering the basic sciences, such as biology, chemistry, and physics, and then move on to more advanced courses, such as biomechanics, neuroanatomy, human growth and development, manifestations of disease, examination techniques, and therapeutic procedures. Many programs require students to participate as a volunteer in a physical therapy department of a hospital or clinic before they can graduate. Physical therapists are usually required to continue their education throughout their careers, and some States require this in order to renew licenses.
In 2002, physical therapists held about 137,000 jobs. About two-thirds worked in offices of health practitioners or in hospitals.
Between 2002 and 2012, employment of physical therapists is expected to increase faster than the average. This is because the number of individuals with disabilities or limited function is expected to rise, creating more demand for the services of physical therapists. Medical advances will allow more trauma victims to survive, and those patients will need physical therapy. A growing public interest in health promotion will also increase demand.
For more information on becoming a physical therapist, please see our directory of Physical Therapy Schools