A physical therapist (PT) provides services to patients or clients who have impairments, functional limitations, disabilities, or changes in physical function and health status resulting from injury, disease, or other causes. Physical therapists treat a wide range of patients– from small children born with physical disabilities to senior citizens suffering from conditions of aging that limit their range of motion. Physical therapists also work with people of all ages who have disabling conditions resulting from accidents and illnesses.

Some practices utilized by physical therapists date back to ancient civilizations; for example, massage and restorative baths, which were essential to both Greek and Roman warriors. The modern practice of physical therapy, however, was developed in the aftermath of World War I, to meet the needs of injured soldiers returning home. “Reconstruction aides”, as they were designated, also traveled to France to begin the rehabilitation process while wounded soldiers were recovering in hospitals. Most of these reconstruction aides were women; however, today, both men and women enjoy the personal and professional rewards of this highly respected healthcare field.

Physical therapists form partnerships with their patients, working together to meet individual patient goals whether the desire is to walk independently again or to achieve and maintain physical prowess, flexibility, and control that will allow participation in athletics. The focus of physical therapy is both preventive and reconstructive.

When addressing patients with health problems resulting from injury or illness, physical therapists assist in the recovery process, helping the patient regain strength in, and use of, affected limbs. PTs also practice and teach techniques to relieve pain as well as help patients relearn daily living activities such as getting dressed, bathing, and taking care of other personal needs. Physical therapists utilize, as needed, electrical stimulation, hot packs, cold compresses, and ultrasound to relieve pain and reduce swelling. They also teach their patients how to use such adaptive devices as crutches, prostheses, and wheelchairs. For reconstructive approaches to be successful, they must be part of the patient’s regular activities – not just undertaken while with the therapist. Thus, physical therapists teach their patients activities that can be accomplished at home so that healing can continue through self-care.

Physical therapists also strive to prevent injuries and keep people healthy by analyzing work, home, and recreational environments. They also suggest ways to perform activities without damaging the body. Physical therapists promote physical fitness, designing and supervising individualized conditioning programs to increase overall well-being, muscular strength, and endurance. Olympic teams normally include physical therapists on their staffs.




Physical therapy services include, but are not limited to, the following areas:

1. An initial physical therapy evaluation and functional assessment of the patient prior to providing services, including pertinent medical, psychological, and social history to determine the needs of the patient. The assessment may include, but is not restricted to, the following:

  • Identifying impairment of static postures and physiologic responses to movement, including measurement of posture, locomotion, strength, endurance, balance, coordination, joint mobility, flexibility, and pain
  • Evaluating the need for orthotic, prosthetic, or assistive devices
  • Determining the need for interventions to prevent or treat physical functional disability in daily living, movement dysfunction, and pain resulting from injury, disease, disability, or other related conditions
  • Appraising wound/skin conditions and management required
  • Considering the need for providing consultative, educational, and other advisory services

2. The determination and development of treatment goals and plans in accordance with the diagnosis and prognosis, and establishment of a treatment program to prevent or reduce disability or pain and restore lost function

3. Therapeutic interventions that focus on posture, locomotion, strength, endurance, cardiopulmonary analysis, balance, coordination, joint mobility, flexibility, pain, functional abilities, and daily living skills

4. The application of modalities that include, but are not limited to, heat, cold, light, air, water, sound, electricity, massage, mobilization; and, therapeutic exercises, which may or may not include assistive devices

5. Assessment and training in locomotion including, as appropriate, the use of orthotic, prosthetic, or assistive devices

6. Patient and family education, as appropriate

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Strong interpersonal skills are a must for physical therapists as they must encourage and teach patients to perform physical activities that often are both difficult and painful, especially if done when the body is recovering from illness or injury. Since PTs work directly with patients, they also should be personable, compassionate, and have a desire to help others. A genuine liking for, and ability to participate in, physical exercise and other activities are definite assets. An aptitude for the sciences is critical as physical therapy educational programs begin with such courses as biology, chemistry, and physics then progress to specialized classes such as biomechanics, neuroanatomy, and human growth and development.

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Physical therapists practice in a broad range of inpatient, outpatient, and community-based settings including hospitals (critical care, intensive care, acute care, and sub-acute care); outpatient clinics or offices; rehabilitation facilities; skilled nursing, extended care, sub-acute care; homes; education or research centers; school and playgrounds (preschool, primary, secondary); hospices; industrial, workplace or other occupational environments; athletic facilities (collegiate, amateur, professional); and fitness centers and sports training facilities.

About two-thirds of physical therapists work in hospitals or offices of physical therapists. Some PTs are selfemployed, providing services to individual patients or contracting to provide services in hospitals and other work settings. PTs also may be part of a consulting group. Approximately one-fourth of all physical therapists work on a part-time basis.

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Physical therapy assistants (PTAs) and aides assist physical therapists in providing services that help improve mobility, relieve pain, and prevent or limit permanent physical disabilities of patients suffering from illnesses or injuries.

Physical therapy assistants work under the supervision of the PT and perform a variety of treatment tasks such as exercises, massages, electrical stimulation, paraffin baths, hot and cold packs, traction, and ultrasound. They also record treatment responses and report outcomes to the physical therapist.

Physical therapy aides work under the supervision of the therapist or the assistant. Responsibilities include keeping the treatment area clean, organized, and ready for each patient’s therapy. Aides also perform clerical tasks as needed and transport or assist patients in moving to or from treatment areas. While assistants and therapists must complete an approved educational program and pass a national examination leading to licensure, aides usually are trained on the job and are not licensed healthcare providers.

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Employment opportunities for physical therapists, assistants, and aides are increasing much faster than the average career due to the rapidly increasing number of middle aged and elderly individuals in our population. Also, as medical advances are achieved, trauma victims or patients suffering from other conditions will be able to take advantage of new or improved treatment programs.

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