When athletes tear tendons, dancers sprain their knees, and anyone injured in an accident needs more than a cast and some painkillers, a physical therapist takes over where a physician leaves off. Physical therapists prescribe and oversee a regimen of strengthening exercises, stretching and other non-surgical treatments, all as an attempt to bring their patients as far back to full strength as possible, sometimes as quickly as possible. Therapists also occasionally use electrical stimulation and ultrasound to relieve the pain associated with injuries or terminal illnesses, teach patients to use crutches, prostheses and wheelchairs, and help them to cope with their injuries on a day-to-day basis. Physical therapists combine their medical expertise with assessments of patients' medical histories and individual needs to develop treatment plans. Physical therapists can work in both general and specific areas. They can work with patients from ages 9 to 90 (pediatrics and geriatrics respectively) and from head to toe (neurology and orthopedics)--there are numerous possibilities for specialization.
In the office or at your home
Some physical therapists work in hospitals, schools, home health agencies, nursing homes and physicians' offices; others have strong enough client bases to open their own practices. Both those in private practice and those who work for agencies or other employers occasionally travel to the homes of patients who are unable to travel to hospitals for treatment. Many develop close, long-term relationships with their patients as they document their progress and modify treatment programs. Therapists typically work eight hours a day, but frequently find that their patients' needs extend into evenings and weekends.
In addition to technical expertise, physical therapists must possess compassion and tact, especially when dealing with a patient's family.
Physical therapists must be in top physical condition not only to lift and move their patients and heavy equipment, but also to spend a great deal of time on their feet, since their jobs require them to actively participate in their patients' treatment.
In order to practice physical therapy, therapists must complete a four-year undergraduate program. Most physical therapy programs start with basic biology, chemistry and physics courses. Later in the program, a student begins the study of biomechanics, neuroanatomy, human growth and development, manifestations of disease and trauma, evaluation and assessment techniques, research and therapy. Like physicians, therapists receive supervised clinical experience in hospitals. After the four-year program, most students with aspirations of working with patients or starting their own practices pursue a graduate level degree. In the past, a master's degree in physical therapy (MPT) was often sufficient to gain employment, but more schools now offer doctoral degrees in physical therapy (DPT). The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), the largest professional association for the field in the United States, identified 205 accredited physical therapy programs in 2004; 94 of the programs offered MPTs and 111 offered DPTs, a disparity that should only increase in coming years. The APTA has also predicted that every physical therapist will have a DPT degree by the year 2020.
Competition for entry to physical therapy programs is tough, so top grades from reputable schools are imperative. Volunteer experience in hospitals or clinics is also extremely helpful in gaining admittance. In order to advance past an administrative or research position, a master's degree is usually required. Physical therapists who want to stay on top of developments in the profession take continuing education courses and workshops; some states even require a certain number of hours of continuing coursework to maintain licensure.
Most physical therapists find their jobs "rewarding and exhausting." Advancement in the field requires people to "pay their dues." The field is "very competitive, and very cliquey," depending on the place, insiders say. Perks of the job include travel, as therapists are often employed at agencies that specialize in roaming therapists, whose "travel expenses and living accommodations are paid, on top of their salaries." The dress is "casual and comfortable," ranging from a "white lab coat" to a "jogging suit with a company logo." Therapists are exposed to a "diverse group of people with different problems." Says an Arizona-based PT, "You really get the chance to know your patients and really make an impact on their recovery and for the rest of their lives." A sense of personal accomplishment, combined with comfortable salaries for licensed therapists--"$60,000 to $75,000 is a lot of money"--make physical therapists a satisfied group of professionals.
Good pay; Wide variety of career options; Can have flexible hours
Patient; Outgoing; Sensitive
Average about 40 per week
Median salary: $66,200
Master's degree in physical therapy (MPT); Doctorate in physical therapy (DPT); Must pass a state licensing exam