There are about 186,000 physical therapists in the United States. Job growth indicators suggest that over the next 10 years the occupation will grow by 30%, which is far above the average growth rate for all jobs. Nearly 60% of all physical therapists are employed by hospitals or by health practitioners who have established private practices.
Physical therapists diagnose patients suffering from a wide array of problems that involve their ability to move efficiently and without pain. For some patients, this is the result of injury or accident; for others, aging. Still others may have been born with or developed a disorder that has affected the skeletal system, ligaments, tendons, or flexibility. Upon meeting a client, a physical therapist begins with an examination to determine the cause and degree of movement disability with the goal of reducing pain, increasing flexibility and movement efficiency, restoring function, and preventing further deterioration or additional trauma caused by the inability to freely move. Some physical therapists focus on preventing mobility loss by working with fitness instructors to develop wellness programs aimed at a healthier approach to living.
In the course of a work week, a physical therapist might work with patients suffering from neck injuries, vertebral problems, sprained or strained muscles, broken bones, arthritis, amputations, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, stroke, spina bifida, or sports injuries.
After assessing and diagnosing the source of movement dysfunction, the physical therapist develops an individualized plan of intervention and treatment. Therapeutic exercise, manual therapeutic approaches, functional training, assistive devices, adaptive equipment, and electrotherapeutic modalities may be included in the plan. A physical therapist may consult or team with doctors, dentists, teachers, nurses, social workers, speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, and audiologists.
Most physical therapists work in clinics, hospitals, or private practices that are clean, well organized, and well-lit. These work environments contain equipment ranging from exercise machines to adaptive devices. Physical therapists crouch, bend, stoop, lift, reach, and kneel throughout the course of the day. They may have to assist heavy patients who cannot move on their own, relocate heavy equipment, and stand for long periods. Physical therapists must be patient and consistent with patients who may resist, should possess a degree of empathy, and be clear communicators as teaching patients a variety of skills is important.
Most employers prefer or require applicants with a degree in physical therapy from an accredited program. All 50 states license or otherwise oversee the practice. Most require that therapists have passed one or more national or state tests. The American Physical Therapy Association’s accrediting body, the Commission on Accreditation of Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE), has established accreditation for over 210 entry-level physical therapy
programs in colleges and universities. Only 12 programs offer master’s degrees, while 200 award doctoral degrees. Most master’s degree programs take between two to three years to complete; doctoral degree programs take three.
Coursework focuses on anatomy and physiology, biology, cellular histology, neuroscience, exercise physiology, biomechanics, pathology, pharmacology, and imaging. Programs that are clinically based also include classes in medical screening, outcomes assessment, diagnostic approaches, therapeutic interventions, and practice management. Students also work with patients under the supervision of therapists with clinical experience.
Applicants with an undergraduate background in the sciences and mathematics are stronger candidates than those lacking such classes. Hospital or clinical volunteer experience in physical therapy is also a plus. In several states, licenses can only be retained with ongoing continuing education.
It is possible for physical therapists to gain board certification in a specialty. Some therapists advance their careers by becoming researchers or working in academia. Some begin a private practice or work contractually.
The median annual income for physical therapists is about $73,000. Those in the midrange earn between $60,000 and $86,000. Therapists earning in the lowest 10% make less than $50,000, while those in the top 10% earn around $105,000.