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Physical Therapy (PT) Assistant Career Guide

What is a physical therapy assistant?

A physical therapy assistant is a healthcare professional trained to provide support in physical therapy sessions. They operate under the supervision of a licensed physical therapist to promote mobility, reduce pain, and restore function for patients suffering from physical disabilities or recovery from injury or illness. The occupation plays a significant role within a multidisciplinary healthcare team, directly impacting the wellness and quality of life for the individuals they assist. Their efforts can help a wide range of patients, from individuals recovering from injuries to those with chronic conditions such as arthritis or neurological disorders.

These professionals contribute to a team often composed of therapists, nurses, and physicians, all working together for the ultimate patient rehabilitation goal. Their specific contributions often revolve around implementing the therapeutic plan designed by the lead therapist, aiming to maximize the patient’s functional abilities while enhancing their overall wellness and comfort. The assistant’s activities greatly enhance the efficiency of physical therapy treatments, providing considerable value to the healthcare sector.

Duties and responsibilities

The primary responsibility of a physical therapy assistant is to assist the physical therapist in providing therapy sessions to patients. This usually involves setting up the therapy equipment, guiding patients through specific exercises, and monitoring their responses to the therapy. They are also responsible for taking detailed notes on patients’ progress and sharing this information with the therapist to help adjust the rehabilitation plan as needed. Other duties may include teaching patients how to use therapeutic equipment at home and providing education about physical therapy and rehabilitation.

In addition to their therapeutic duties, they may also be responsible for some administrative tasks. This can include scheduling appointments, maintaining patient files, and coordinating insurance billing. Ensuring all of the necessary information is organized and available to other healthcare team members is another important aspect of the position.

Work environment

Physical therapy assistants predominantly work in physical therapy practices but can also be found in hospitals, outpatient clinics, home health agencies, and nursing homes. The work environment can be both physically and emotionally demanding. They are often on their feet for most of the day and may need to physically support patients while they exercise or move around.

Their job may require bending, lifting, and moving patients who need assistance. Despite the physical demands and high activity levels, the role can be highly rewarding, as assistants see first-hand the progress and functional improvements their patients make over time. It’s important to note that proper techniques and safety measures are necessary to prevent potential injuries to both the assistant and their patients.

Typical work hours

Like many healthcare professions, physical therapy assistants may work a range of hours based on their place of employment. In settings like hospitals or nursing homes, therapeutic services may be needed seven days a week, leading to possible weekend and evening shifts. The assistants may be required to take on regular full-time hours, but part-time roles are also fairly common in this field.

In outpatient clinics or private practices, the work hours might align more with typical office hours, such as Monday through Friday, 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM. These professionals may also need a certain degree of flexibility in their schedule, as some patients might require early morning or late evening appointments to accommodate their own work or personal commitments. Overall, their work hours are variably dependent on the specific needs of the employer and their patients.

How to become a physical therapy assistant

This career guide section outlines the process of becoming a physical therapy assistant. The key steps in this journey revolve around obtaining relevant education, gaining the necessary experience, and achieving the required certifications.

Step 1: Acquire a high school diploma or equivalent

The first educational milestone on your path is earning a high school diploma or an equivalent qualification like a GED. Most physical therapy assistant programs require this as a fundamental entry requirement. While in high school, you can lay a solid foundation by focusing on science-related subjects such as biology and anatomy, as well as maintaining good physical fitness.

Step 2: Complete an accredited program

After finishing high school, the next step is enrollment in a physical therapy assistant program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). These programs usually lead to an associate’s degree and provide academic and practical patient care training. Subjects typically covered include anatomy, pathology, physiology, and kinesiology.

Step 3: Gain practical experience through clinical internships

As part of most physical therapy assistant programs, students must complete a certain amount of clinical internship hours to gain practical experience. These internships provide hands-on exposure to the role under the supervision of experienced professionals. These can be invaluable for gaining skills and making contacts within the industry.

Step 4: Obtain licensure

After completing an accredited program, the next step is to become licensed. The exact licensing requirements may vary by state but generally involve passing the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE) for physical therapy assistants. Continued education might also be necessary to keep your license valid.

Step 5: Gain work experience

Once licensed, you should aim to gain work experience. Look for entry-level job opportunities to get started. The more experience you gain, the more opportunities may open up for you in the future, including specialized areas of physical therapy. The initial years of your career are a great time to discover areas you may want to specialize in.

Step 6: Pursue additional certifications

While not mandatory for all jobs, additional certifications are advantageous for your professional growth. Certifications through professional organizations like the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) can signify your commitment to the profession and help advance your career. These certifications can also showcase your expertise in specific areas of physical therapy.

How much do physical therapy assistants make?

Physical therapy assistant salaries vary by experience, industry, education, location, and organization size. The scope of duties, the level of supervision required, and the need for specialized certifications or experience in areas such as pediatric or geriatric rehabilitation can significantly impact compensation.

Highest paying industries

  • Home Health Care Services – $68,440
  • Nursing Care Facilities – $66,340
  • Disability, Mental Health, and Substance Abuse Facilities – $65,980
  • Offices of Other Health Practitioners – $65,120
  • Specialty Hospitals – $64,890

Highest paying states

  • California – $68,220
  • Florida – $67,880
  • Illinois – $66,240
  • Massachusetts – $64,920
  • New York – $64,610

Browse physical therapy assistant salary data by market

Types of physical therapy assistants

Below, we explore common career types and areas of specialization for physical therapy assistants. In this section, we aim to give you a better understanding of the varying paths you can choose from within this profession.

Orthopedic therapy assistant

As an orthopedic therapy assistant, you will be focused on treating individuals with conditions affecting their musculoskeletal system. Your duties might include helping patients regain movement after surgery, assisting with exercise routines, and implementing treatment plans created by physical therapists. This role requires a deep understanding of the body’s muscular and skeletal systems.

Pediatric therapy assistant

In pediatrics, physical therapy assistants work directly with children to improve their motor skills, strength, coordination, and balance. Interactions and therapy strategies must often be adjusted to maintain a fun, motivating, and age-appropriate atmosphere. Prolonged patience and excellent communication skills, especially with younger children, are crucial in this specialty.

Geriatric therapy assistant

As a geriatric therapy assistant, your work will predominantly cater to the needs of the elderly. Aging comes with a range of physical challenges, from loss of balance to decreased flexibility and strength. Your role may involve facilitating exercises to improve mobility, assisting with pain management, and working with other healthcare professionals to provide holistic care.

Neurological therapy assistant

Specializing in neurology requires working with patients suffering from various neurological disorders such as stroke, spinal cord injuries, or Parkinson’s disease. You may implement therapeutic exercises to improve motor skills and cognitive function, as well as assist with various treatments to manage symptoms. This specialty requires a well-rounded knowledge of neurological conditions and their impacts on the body.

Home health therapy assistant

If you decide to specialize as a home health therapy assistant, you will provide physical therapy services in the comfort of a patient’s home. Your patient base will vary, providing services to those unable to visit a clinic due to health or mobility challenges. Your work may encompass a variety of duties, from executing therapy plans to educating family members about the patient’s needs. This role requires a high level of autonomy and excellent interpersonal skills.

Top skills for physical therapy assistants

This section highlights the skills and traits that will lead to career success as a physical therapy assistant.

Communication skills

Engaging effectively with patients is essential in this role. Your ability to express yourself clearly, listen attentively, and interpret both verbal and non-verbal cues greatly influences the patient’s experience and recovery progress. Communication skills also help in coordinating with physical therapists and other healthcare professionals effectively.

Physical stamina

It’s not uncommon to spend many hours standing, bending, and lifting. Having good physical stamina helps meet these demands without undue fatigue. Equally important is the ability to demonstrate or assist in physical exercises, sometimes helping to support patients’ weight for mobility training.


Careers in healthcare often require a high degree of empathy. Patients dealing with physical disabilities or recovering from injuries often experience emotional distress. As a physical therapy assistant, understanding, emotional support, and patience can be as important as the physical treatments.

Attention to detail

Correctly implementing treatment plans designed by physical therapists demands absolute attention to detail. Each exercise and movement has a specific intent and must be executed correctly to yield desired results. Additionally, observant assistants will notice subtleties in a patient’s progress or challenges, enabling more refined treatment strategies.

Knowledge of physiology and anatomy

Understanding the human body’s structure and how it functions is fundamental to this profession. This knowledge enables a more accurate application of treatment techniques and aids in explaining exercises and treatment plans to patients leading to their improved understanding and compliance.

Physical therapy assistant career path

When it comes to career advancement, a physical therapy assistant has several options available. These professionals are already part of a dynamic and demanding field, but their route doesn’t have to stop there.

Earning a higher degree

One of the primary ways to expand your career is to pursue further education. Many professionals opt to continue their studies and earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. Upon acquiring this, individuals can transition from the role of assistant to a fully licensed physical therapist. This shift increases independence and a broader range of responsibilities, leading to more opportunities and higher salary expectations.

Specializing in a field

Another growth pathway worth considering is pursuing a specialization within physical therapy. There are several areas, such as sports therapy, geriatric care, pediatric therapy, or orthopedic physical therapy. Gaining a specialization can not only enhance your skill set but also open up opportunities for higher roles within specialized clinics or hospitals. This trajectory can offer a greater variety of tasks and an increased level of patient interaction.

Entering management or administration

Some assistants may find that their interests lie in administration or management. Pursuing additional qualifications, like a degree in healthcare management or administration, can appeal to these professionals. These roles allow individuals to oversee operations at rehabilitation centers or therapy clinics, adding a new dimension to their careers beyond direct patient care.

Teaching or research roles

Those with a passion for knowledge dissemination might find a rewarding path in teaching or research. After gaining significant experience and possibly an advanced degree, they could consider roles as instructors in technical or vocational schools. Alternatively, they might engage in clinical research, contributing to advancements in the field. Both of these paths are critical to the continuous growth and improvement of the physical therapy profession.

The physical therapy sector has witnessed a substantial shift in demand due to an aging population, an upsurge in chronic diseases, and the growing emphasis on active lifestyles. For those in this role, it’s technically sound to say that anticipations are high. Innovations in treatment techniques have played pivotal roles in changing the dynamics of the profession. There’s growing acceptance of non-invasive treatments among patients, so physical therapy assistants are becoming integral to patient recovery processes.

The minimum requirement in terms of education for this field is an associate’s degree, but these professionals are now considering higher education to stand out among potential employers and provide superior patient care. The drive toward higher education among those interested in this line of work is a noteworthy trend. Since assistants are required to work under the guidance of a physical therapist, the increased emphasis on teamwork is necessary in this profession.

Employment projections

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the employment of physical therapy assistants is projected to grow by 24% through 2031, much faster than the average for all occupations. Demand for physical therapy is expected to come from aging baby boomers, who stay active later in life and are susceptible to health conditions, such as strokes, that may require physical therapy. In addition, medical and technological developments should permit more trauma victims and newborns with congenital disabilities to survive, who will need rehabilitative care.

Physical therapy assistant career tips

Understand the role inside and out

As a physical therapy assistant, it’s vital that you have in-depth knowledge of the field. This includes an understanding of the types of patients you might encounter, the common procedures and equipment used, and the ethical considerations that come with this medical profession. Continual learning is key here, and this effort will allow you to improve the services you provide to patients.

Maintain a patient-focused ethic

Becoming successful in this role necessitates putting patients first. Your approach should be patient-centric, with major decisions driven by what is in their best interest. This requires listening, building trust, managing expectations, and ensuring the patient feels comfortable with the therapy process.

Develop strong working relationships

Building strong relationships with other healthcare professionals is also an important factor for success. Working closely with physical therapists, doctors, and other healthcare providers ensures comprehensive care for your patients and can lead to more professional opportunities for you.

Continuously improve your skills and knowledge

Even if you’ve completed your formal education and required certifications, never stop learning. Aim to keep improving your skills and expanding your knowledge. Here are some suggestions:

  • Attend relevant medical seminars and workshops
  • Enroll in supplementary courses related to your field
  • Stay current with the latest research in physical therapy techniques

Build a professional network

Establishing a network of professional contacts could give you access to new opportunities. Here are a few recommended organizations where you can make invaluable connections and stay up-to-date with the latest industry trends:

  • American Physical Therapy Association (APTA)
  • Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT)
  • American Academy of Physical Therapy (AAPT)

Where the physical therapy assistant jobs are

Top employers

  • RehabCare
  • Select Rehabilitation
  • Therapy Management Corporation
  • Aegis Therapies
  • Reliant Rehabilitation

Top states

  • California
  • Florida
  • Texas
  • New York
  • Pennsylvania

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • Indeed
  • LinkedIn
  • ZipRecruiter
  • JobG8


What academic qualifications are necessary for becoming a physical therapy assistant?

A relevant associate’s degree from an accredited institution is typically required. This course of study provides instruction in anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, and other related subjects before introducing hands-on clinical practice experiences.

Are there any licensing or certification needs for physical therapy assistants?

In most states, they must pass a state-administered or national exam to become licensed or certified. Maintaining licensure, which often involves continuing education, is also essential.

What are common duties of a physical therapy assistant?

Common responsibilities include assisting patients in performing specific exercises as part of their treatment plan, teaching patients how to use therapy equipment, and recording patients’ progress. They also communicate with physical therapists about changes in patients’ progress or issues that need to be addressed.

What skills are necessary for a successful career as a physical therapy assistant?

Key skills include compassion and patience, as you’ll often work with people in pain or distress. Good communication and interpersonal skills are important, as you must understand patients’ needs and relay complex medical information to them. Physical stamina is also necessary, as you will be on your feet for long periods assisting patients with their exercises.

In what kind of environments do physical therapy assistants typically work?

They work in a variety of healthcare settings, including physical therapy offices, hospitals, and nursing homes. Some even work in patients’ homes, providing care and guidance in a more comfortable environment for the patient.

What is the role of a physical therapy assistant in a patient’s recovery?

The assistant plays an integral role in a patient’s recovery process. They provide exercises and therapeutic treatments under the direction of a physical therapist, helping patients regain their strength, mobility, and confidence. By tracking progress and reporting back to the therapist, they help tailor the treatment plan to the patient’s specific needs and goals.

Is there room for career growth as a physical therapy assistant?

There is indeed potential for career growth in this field. After gaining experience, one could become a senior assistant, supervising other assistants or taking on specialized roles. Further education can also lead to becoming a licensed physical therapist, a role that comes with increased responsibilities and autonomy.

How physically demanding is a career as a physical therapy assistant?

The job is physically demanding. It requires stamina, as you must stand and walk most of the day. You may also need to lift patients or heavy equipment. Therefore, it’s important to maintain good physical health and fitness. However, the physical demands are often offset by the satisfaction of helping patients and seeing their progress.

What steps should I take to start my career as a physical therapy assistant?

Begin by earning an associate’s degree from an accredited physical therapy assistant program. Attend lectures and gain hands-on experience through clinical rotations. Upon graduation, pass the licensure or certification exam in your state. Regularly update your credentials with continuing education as required by your state. It may also be beneficial to network with professionals in the field and seek mentorship opportunities to further your career.