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Learn Physical Therapy Basics

Educate yourself

Physical therapy is an integral part of healthcare services in the 21st century. This dynamic profession is dedicated to identifying the highest functional potential of the individual client and striving to reach that goal through a variety of means.

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  • Seek a licensed practitioner

    Physical therapy is only provided by a licensed physical therapist (PT) or a physical therapist assistant (PTA) under the supervision of a physical therapist.

  • Understand what physical therapists do

    The PT performs a thorough interview, examination, and evaluation with the patient and combines resulting findings with other health care information, such as diagnostic test results, to determine a diagnosis and create a unique treatment plan.

  • Learn about the types of treatments

    PTs utilize a variety of treatments including, but not limited to, educating the client or caregiver, therapeutic exercise, functional training in self-care, manual therapy, orthotics and prosthetics, wound care and integumentary protection, physical, mechanical, and electrical modalities, and work integration and reintegration.

  • Discover areas of specialization

    Physical therapy can be beneficial to a wide range of clients, from the premature infant to the aged, the well to the terminally ill. PTs may choose to specialize in a specific area such as cardiopulmonary, geriatrics, sports, clinical electrophysiology, neurology, orthopedics or pediatrics.

  • Find out where PTs and PTAs practice

    To meet the needs of so many different types of people, PTs practice in a variety of settings including outpatient clinics, fitness centers, hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, schools, patient homes, sports teams, and work settings. You may also find PTs out in the community at health fairs or community centers performing general fitness assessments or screening for fall and/or injury risk. Additionally, PTs and PTAs may teach at universities or do research.

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Physical therapy FAQs

What do physical therapists actually do?

When a PT sees a patient for the first time, they examine that individual and develop a plan of care. The goal is to promote the patient’s ability to move, reduce pain, restore function, and prevent disability. PTs will also work with individuals to prevent loss of mobility by developing fitness- and wellness-oriented programs for healthier and more active lifestyles.

Therapeutic exercise and functional training are the cornerstones of physical therapist treatment. Depending on the particular needs of a patient, physical therapists may "mobilize" a joint or massage a muscle to promote proper movement and function. PTs may use other techniques such as electrotherapy, ultrasound (high-frequency waves that produce heat), hot packs, and ice in addition to other treatments when appropriate.

Do you need a license to practice physical therapy?

Yes. State licensure is required in each state in which a PT practices.

What do physical therapist assistants do?

Physical therapist assistants (PTAs) provide physical therapy services under the direction and supervision of a PT. Care provided by a PTA may include teaching patients/clients exercise for mobility, strength and coordination, training for activities such as walking with crutches, canes, or walkers, massage, and the use of physical agents and electrotherapy such as ultrasound and electrical stimulation.

Do you need a license to be a physical therapist assistant?

In most states, yes, you need to be licensed or certified to work as a PTA.

What does the title “Physical Therapist” or “PT” after someone’s name mean?

An individual who represents themselves as having obtained the title of PT has met the following criteria:

  • Graduated from an accredited physical therapist education program, which is a post-baccalaureate degree.

  • Passed the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE) for physical therapists. This exam is based on a comprehensive practice analysis conducted to determine critical knowledge, skills and abilities of physical therapists.

  • Licensed to practice in the state or jurisdiction where they work.

What does the title “Physical Therapist Assistant” or “PTA” after someone’s name mean?

  • Graduated from an accredited physical therapist assistant education program, which is generally a two-year, post-high school degree.

  • Passed the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE) for physical therapist assistants. This exam is based on a comprehensive practice analysis conducted to determine critical knowledge, skills and abilities of physical therapist assistants.

  • As of 2012, in all but one jurisdiction, licensed or certified to work in that state or jurisdiction.

Who do I contact for information about physical therapy state regulatory requirements?

You need to contact the licensing authority in the state where you are interested in obtaining information. Click on Licensing Authorities Contact Information to obtain contact information for any of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Basic information on state regulatory requirements can be found in the FSBPT’s licensure reference guide.