Physical therapy emerged as a critically important profession following the polio epidemics and World Wars in the first half of the 20th century. With over 200,00 physical therapist jobs on Simply Hired, it is among the fastest growing fields in our ever-changing healthcare environment.
A career in physical therapy is a golden opportunity, but only if you are willing to invest the time and energy necessary to attain the education and training needed to excel at helping people help themselves. If that inspires you, it's never too late to start working toward a lucrative and rewarding career.
What do Physical Therapists Do?
Physical therapy is the treatment a health professional provides to patients to help them return to normal functions – or as near as possible to normal – after an injury, a surgical procedure or any other physical challenge that keeps them from performing everyday tasks or participating in recreational activities. These might include walking, climbing stairs, driving and playing sports. A physical therapist concentrates on a variety of issues, depending on the patient's specific problem, such as:
Physical therapy can help people deal with a variety of injuries and long-term health problems, including:
- Back pain
- Torn or strained tendons or ligaments
- Spinal stenosis
- Parkinson's disease
- Multiple sclerosis
The Path to Becoming a Physical Therapist
So how do you break into the field of physical therapy? If you're still in high school, you should concentrate on the biological and physical sciences because you’ll be required to complete science courses during your undergraduate studies.
After you earn your bachelor’s degree, you'll move on to a master's program and possibly a doctorate. Some physical therapists hone their skills by completing residency programs, which generally last from nine months to three years.
Physical therapy graduate programs concentrate on subjects such as biology, physics, chemistry, statistics, anatomy, physiology and psychology. Advanced classes include exercise physiology, kinesiology, biomechanics, pathophysiology, research methodology and therapeutic methods and techniques.
If you are serious about becoming a physical therapist, there are some questions you should ask before choosing a university for your undergraduate work. For example:
- Does the school offer a program that will prepare you for your postgraduate work in physical therapy?
- Does the school have an advisor who helps students who will be moving on to postgraduate work in physical therapy?
- Have many of the school's students have graduated and completed master's or doctorate work in physical therapy?
- Does the school offer a program that provides hands-on experience in a local physical therapy clinic?
Regardless of how long you stay in school or whether you choose to participate in a residency program, you'll have to pass the National Physical Therapy Exam to practice as a physical therapist. Some states have additional requirements, such as continuing education classes.
Some physical therapists go on to earn certification in a particular specialty, such as geriatrics, sports, pediatrics or orthopedics. To gain such a designation, you'll have to show that you have practiced for more than 2,000 hours in your chosen specialty, and you'll have to pass another certification exam.
Is Physical Therapy the Right Career for You?
Even if you have no problem passing the required science courses, it's important to be aware of the skills and mindset necessary for a career in physical therapy. Here are some of the qualities exhibited by successful physical therapists:
Compassion – Many physical therapists were drawn to the profession simply because they wanted to help people. Since they work with people who are in pain, it's helpful and natural for them to empathize with their patients.
Detail-oriented – Most health care providers are good at observing and analyzing a patient's problems, evaluating possible treatments and providing effective care. Physical therapists are no different.
Interpersonal skills – Physical therapists must enjoy working with people because they interact with their patients constantly. They must be able to explain various treatment options and educate their patients, and they must listen to their patients as well.
Physical stamina – Physical therapists should be physically fit because they spend a lot of time on their feet while they work with patients.
Dexterity – Physical therapists must be able to use tools such as balance beams, reflex hammers and equipment that tests muscle strength, and they also must be comfortable using their hands to provide therapy to patients and to teach exercises that are part of rehab programs.
If you have the drive and determination to study hard, make good grades and persevere in higher education, the fast-growing field of physical therapy can provide you with a distinctly satisfying way to make a living while helping others.
Kiersten Ferreira is the Director of Rehab Therapy for CompHealth's permanent placement division. Her team provides placement services for occupational therapists, physical therapists, rehab managers and directors of rehab, in a variety of settings throughout the United States. Kiersten has over 17 years' experience in healthcare staffing experience, 11 of those with CompHealth.