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Physical Therapy Career

Career Description

Physical therapists provide services that help restore function, improve mobility, relieve pain, and prevent or limit permanent physical disabilities of patients suffering from injuries or disease. They restore, maintain, and promote overall fitness and health. Their patients include accident victims and individuals with disabling conditions such as low-back pain, arthritis, heart disease, fractures, head injuries, and cerebral palsy.

Common Work Tasks

  • Examine patients’ medical histories
  • Test and measure patients’ strength, range of motion, balance and coordination, posture, muscle performance, respiration, and motor function
  • Develop plans describing a treatment strategy and its anticipated outcome
  • Encourage patients to use their muscles to increase their flexibility and range of motion
  • Use electrical stimulation, hot packs or cold compresses, and ultrasound to relieve pain and reduce swelling
  • Teach patients to use assistive and adaptive devices, such as crutches, prostheses, and wheelchairs
  • Document the patient’s progress, conduct periodic examinations, and modify treatments when necessary
  • Consult and practice with physicians, dentists,  nurses, educators, social workers, occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, and audiologists
  • Show patients how to do exercises at home to expedite their recovery

Other Job Titles

Physical therapists are also known by other titles,  including:

  • Rehabilitation Counselor
  • Athletic Trainer
  • Respiratory Therapist
  • Occupational Therapist
  • Recreational Therapist
  • Radiation Therapist

Education,  Training, and Experience

Education and Training
Only master’s degree and doctoral degree programs are accredited, in accordance with the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education. In the future, a doctoral degree might be the required entry-level degree. Master’s degree programs typically last 2 years, and doctoral degree programs last 3 years.

Physical therapist education programs start with basic science courses such as biology, chemistry, and physics and then introduce specialized courses, including biomechanics,  neuroanatomy, human growth and development, manifestations of disease,  examination techniques, and therapeutic procedures. Besides getting classroom and laboratory instruction, students receive supervised clinical experience.

Licensure and Certification
All States require physical therapists to pass national and State licensure exams before they can practice. They must also graduate from an accredited physical therapist education program.

  Undergraduate courses that are useful when one applies to a physical therapist education program are anatomy, biology, chemistry, social science, mathematics,  and physics. Before granting admission, many programs require volunteer experience in the physical therapy department of a hospital or clinic. For high school students, volunteering with the school athletic trainer is a good way to gain experience


The median annual salary for Physical Therapists is $69,000. The top 10 percent earn more than $100,000, and the lowest 10 percent earn less than $48,000.  Median earnings in the industries employing the largest number of physical therapists are:

  • Offices of Other Health Practitioners - $71,230
  • General Medical and Surgical Hospitals - $70,620
  • Home Health Care Services - $79,300
  • Nursing Care Facilities - $72,970
  • Offices of Physicians - $71,710

Job Outlook

  • 2006-2016 Employment growth:  27%
  • Number of new jobs created 2006-2016: 47,000
  • Employment 2006 : 173,000
  • Employment 2016:  220,000
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