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Physical Therapy

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Field description

Physical Therapy

Physical therapists (PTs) work with patients who have impairments, limitations, disabilities, or changes in physical function and health status resulting from injury, disease or other causes. Their role includes examination, evaluation, diagnosis, prognosis and interventions toward achieving the highest functional outcomes for each patient or client.

More about physical therapy

PTs provide services within a disablement model, which includes aspects of pathophysiology, impairment, functional limitation and disability. They provide services that help restore function, improve mobility, relieve pain, and prevent or limit permanent physical disabilities. They restore, maintain and promote overall health, wellness and fitness. Their patients include accident victims and individuals with disabling conditions such as low back pain, arthritis, heart disease, fractures, head injuries and cerebral palsy.

Therapists examine patients' medical histories, then test and measure their strength, range of motion, balance and coordination, posture, muscle performance, respiration, and motor function. They also determine the ability of patients to become independent and reintegrate into the community or workplace after an injury or illness.

After examining patients, physical therapists develop treatment plans that describe the treatment strategy as well as its purpose and anticipated outcome. PT assistants, under the direction and supervision of a physical therapist, may be involved in implementing patient treatment plans. Physical therapist aides perform routine support tasks as directed by the therapist.

Treatment often includes exercise for patients who have been immobilized and lack flexibility, strength or endurance. PTs encourage patients to use their muscles to further increase flexibility and range of motion before finally advancing to exercises that improve strength, balance, coordination and endurance. Their goal is to improve how an individual functions at work and home.

Physical therapists also use electrical stimulation, hot packs or cold compresses, and ultrasound to relieve pain and reduce swelling. They may use traction or deep-tissue massage to relieve pain. Therapists also teach patients to use assistive and adaptive devices such as crutches, prostheses and wheelchairs. They also may show patients exercises to do at home to expedite their recovery.

As treatment continues, physical therapists document progress, conduct periodic examinations and modify treatments when necessary. Such documentation is used to track the patient's progress and identify areas requiring more or less attention.

Physical therapists often consult and practice with a variety of other professionals, including physicians, dentists, nurses, educators, social workers, occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists and audiologists.

Some PTs treat all physical disabilities, while others specialize in areas such as pediatrics, geriatrics, orthopedics, sports medicine, neurology and cardiopulmonary physical therapy.

Career opportunities

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of physical therapists is expected to grow much faster than the average for all other occupations through 2020. Physical therapy was identified as a "best job" in 2013 by U.S. News & World Report and as a "fastest-growing job" in 2012 by CNN Money.

The demand for physical therapists should continue to rise as a result of growth in the number of individuals with disabilities or limited function. The rapidly growing elderly population is particularly vulnerable to chronic and debilitating conditions that require therapeutic services. Also, the baby boomer generation is entering the prime age for heart attacks and strokes, increasing the need for cardiac and physical rehabilitation.

Advances in medical technology that increase survival of newborns with birth defects, save more trauma victims and permit treatment of additional disabling conditions will create greater demand for rehabilitative care.

Widespread interest in health promotion also should increase demand for physical therapy services. A growing number of employers are using physical therapists to evaluate work sites, develop exercise programs and teach safe work habits to employees in the hope of reducing injuries.

Physical therapists held about 199,000 jobs in 2010 (most recent data available). About 65 percent of physical therapists were employed in hospitals or private practice. Other jobs were in home health agencies, outpatient rehabilitation centers, offices and clinics of physicians, and nursing homes.

Self-employed physical therapists may provide services to individual patients or contract with hospitals, rehabilitation centers, nursing homes, home health agencies, adult day care programs and schools. They may establish a solo practice or join a consulting group.

Physical therapists also teach in academic institutions and conduct research.

Earnings potential

According to the American Physical Therapy Association 2010 Median Income of Physical Therapists Summary Report, median annual earnings of physical therapists were $80,000 (most recent data available).

Median earnings ranged from $61,000 for physical therapists with zero to three years of experience to $90,000 for physical therapists with more than 15 years of experience.

Professional organization

  • June 25, 2013
  • ART726412