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How to Become a Physical Therapy Assistant

Do you enjoy a challenge and want to improve the lives of others? Are you empathetic, encouraging, and have healthy doses of compassion and patience? You could be a perfect fit for a physical therapy assistant.

Physical therapist assistants (PTAs) work under the direction of physical therapists (PTs) to help rehabilitate patients who are working to regain their full range of motion and strengthen injured or atrophied muscle groups. PTAs spend lots of their time working one-on-one with patients, observing their progress, and providing them with the stretches and exercises they need to recover or teaching them how to use rehabilitative equipment and tools.

PTAs provide treatment for individuals of all ages, from newborns to the very oldest seniors, treating injuries, disabilities, or other health conditions. PTAs also provide preventive care for people who want to become healthier. PTAs can have a profound effect on people’s lives, helping them achieve fitness goals, regain or maintain their independence, and lead more active lives. 

Sample job description

We’re looking for a top-rated physical therapist assistant to join our in-house PT clinic. As an ideal candidate, you are licensed and have proven experience treating patients with medical problems or other conditions that limit their ability to move or perform normal activities. You will be responsible for supporting and assisting the physical therapist and/or clinic director to implement an individualized plan of care through all phases of physical therapy. [Your Company Name] provides compassionate and high-quality care through a comprehensive, thorough, evidence-based physical therapy regimen, restoring patients to full functionality.

Typical duties and responsibilities

  • Provides physical therapy services under the supervision of a physical therapist
  • Contributes to a physical therapist’s effectiveness by identifying patient care issues
  • Administers treatment programs for patients
  • Interview patients, perform physical examinations, and study therapy histories to assess patient health
  • Documents patient care services 
  • Administers manual exercises and instructs, encourages, and assists patients in performing physical activities
  • Utilizes crutches, canes, prostheses, etc., to assist patients
  • Describes therapeutic regimens for patients
  • Complies with procedures, rules, and regulations
  • Participates in continuing education, reads periodicals, maintains personal networks, and participates in professional organizations

Education and experience

  • Associate’s degree from an accredited physical therapist assistant education program
  • All states require a license or certification
  • Must pass a state-administered exam or the National Physical Therapy Exam administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy 

Required skills and qualifications

  • Strong knowledge of physiology
  • Excellent at motivating others
  • Organization skills
  • Excellent bedside manner
  • Strong documentation skills
  • Good listening and verbal communication skills
  • Must be able to sit, stand, or walk for extended periods
  • Must be able to bend, squat, push, stoop, and pull as needed in providing physical therapy to patients
  • CPR certification 
  • Compassion and empathy  
  • Attention to detail
  • Manual dexterity

Preferred qualifications

  • One year internship as a physical therapy assistant or comparable internship 
  • Excellent physical stamina and endurance

Typical work environment

Most physical therapist assistants work in a physical therapist’s office or a hospital. Some work in nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, home health agencies, schools, and sports and fitness facilities. PTAs may be standing, sitting, or walking for long periods while helping patients, and may spend time each day setting up equipment for patient care.

Typical hours

Physical therapist assistants work 40-hour weeks, which includes shift work and weekend work. They also frequently work overtime. 

Available certifications

Physical therapist assistants can earn certification from a number of different institutions for career advancement. Here are some of the best certifications for PTAs:

  • PTA Advanced Proficiency Pathways. Administered by the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), the PTA Advanced Proficiency Pathways program is designed to increase a PTA’s knowledge and skill in a chosen area of physical therapy. The available pathways are acute care, cardiovascular/pulmonary, geriatrics, neurology, oncology, orthopedics, pediatrics, and wound management. The Advanced Proficiency Pathway program recognition is good for 10 years.
  • Functional Training Specialty Certification. The Functional Training Specialty Certification is intended for fitness and allied health professionals wanting to gain a deeper understanding of how to train the body to move more efficiently. Offered by the American Council on Exercise, the certification program teaches you how to apply functional movement techniques to your training. You will gain an understanding of fascia, assessments, appropriate exercise progressions, and stretching techniques that will help you train clients to move better. Whether the goal is to improve core function, helping clients gain an edge in athletic competition, or improve balance in older adults, functional training can help all adults improve movement efficiency.
  • Wound Care Certification (WCC). The National Alliance of Wound Care administers the WCC Examination, which demonstrates your academic and technical competence in the area of skin and wound care management. Topics covered include structures and functions of normal skin, identification and management of risk factors impacting skin integrity, wound healing process, and treatment administration and management. Eligibility depends on a number of educational and experience requirements.

Career path

The career path to becoming a physical therapist assistant starts with education. Physical therapist assistants are required to obtain an associate’s degree from an accredited physical therapist assistant education program approved by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education. In most states, they also must pass a state-administered national exam to obtain licensure or certification. The PTA program is typically two years, where students learn anatomy, physiology, exercise physiology, biomechanics, kinesiology, neuroscience, clinical pathology, behavioral sciences, communication, and ethics/values.

Licensed physical therapist assistants typically find work in hospitals or physical therapy offices. They might work in specialized areas, such as acute care, cardiovascular/pulmonary care, geriatrics, oncology, orthopedics, pediatrics, or wound management. PTAs usually pursue continuing education in their specific area.

US, Bureau of Labor Statistics’ job outlook

SOC Code: 31-2021

2020 Employment93,800
Projected Employment in 2030126,900
Projected 2020-2030 Percentage Shift 35% increase
Projected 2020-2030 Numeric Shift33,200 increase

The field of physical therapy is ever-evolving to provide better patient care and improved patient satisfaction. 

Telehealth has become increasingly popular, allowing therapists to see a greater number of patients and helping to make physical therapy more accessible to all. This trend should continue as new technologies emerge and existing technologies are improved.  

Patient engagement is a main priority for physical therapists because it benefits the patients, builds a more positive relationship between patient and therapist, and increases the amount of data the therapist has to work with. Better and more accurate data can help therapists keep patients engaged and recover quicker. 

A holistic approach to physical therapy that treats the whole body is a rising trend in the industry. Therapists are increasingly aware of the importance of treating the mind, body, and spirit by implementing safe, alternative treatment options alongside traditional therapy practices.