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Physical Therapy Assistant Careers

Physical therapy assistants work under the supervision of physical therapists. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, they use therapeutic methods and devices to help patients reclaim body movement following serious injuries or major surgery. They teach patients how to use equipment, such as walkers, how to perform exercises pertinent to their injuries and about post-treatment plans. They also administer patient tests, measurements and evaluations, and report treatment results to physical therapists (bls.gov/ooh, 2012).

Most physical therapy assistant jobs are found in health practitioner offices, while others are located in hospitals, nursing care facilities, and home healthcare facilities (bls.gov/oes, 2013). The job is an active one, and physical therapy assistants spend a lot of time on their feet, moving equipment and actively engaging with patients. Therefore, it is a career most suitable for physically active individuals who enjoy helping others. physical therapy assistants primarily work full-time (bls.gov/ooh, 2012).

How to Become a Physical Therapy Assistant

Individuals interested in physical therapy assistant training can earn a degree in the field. According to the BLS, physical therapy assistants usually must earn an associate degree from an accredited school. While employment cannot be guaranteed, the following steps can help individuals pursue physical therapy assistant careers:

  1. Earn a high school diploma or GED, taking courses in disciplines such as biology, anatomy and physiology, psychology, math and physical education.
  2. Complete a physical therapy assistant associate degree from an accredited program, which combines clinical training and coursework.
  3. Contact state physical therapy boards to learn about licensing and certification requirements. Proceed through licensure or certification process, which often includes passing the National Physical Therapy Exam.
  4. Apply to entry-level physical therapy assistant jobs at local hospitals, physical therapy offices and other medical facilities.
  5. Renew license as required by completing necessary paperwork, exams and continuing education credits.

Post-Education Requirements: Certifications and/or State Licensing

Physical therapy assistants must be licensed or certified in all U.S. states and Washington, D.C., according to the American Physical Therapy Association (apta.org, 2013). As noted by APTA, Hawaii was the last state to require licensure for PTAs -- licensing should begin in 2014. Becoming a licensed or certified PTA typically requires individuals to graduate from schools accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education. Additionally, qualifying candidates must pass the Physical National Physical Therapy Exam through The Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. PTA certification should not be confused with certificate programs that train individuals to become physical therapy aides.

PTA licensure is managed by individual states, either through independent state boards of physical therapy or as part of other organizations, such as state medical boards. Licenses must be renewed on a regular basis, and most states require completing continuing education credits for renewal. Graduates should learn the requirements for licensure and renewal in their states.

Physical Therapy Assistant Specialties

Although physical therapy assistant schools generally do not offer specialty degrees to students, individuals may be able to gain specialized knowledge in areas of interest by attending workshops, conferences and taking additional courses. Physical therapy specialties include cardiovascular and pulmonary, clinical electrophysiology, geriatrics, neurology, orthopaedics, pediatrics, sports and women's health.

Physical Therapy Assistant Job Growth and Average Salary

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 46 percent national growth in physical therapy assistant jobs between 2010 and 2020, more than triple the average job growth rate in the country. The reasons for this torrid growth are numerous, beginning with a rapidly-aging baby boomer population, which is expected to require more medical care. Additionally, as medical progress saves the lives of more trauma victims and babies with birth defects, there should be an increased need for physical therapy services. Physical therapy assistants allow physical therapists to take on more patients (bls.gov/ooh, 2012).

The BLS reports that the median national annual salary of physical therapy assistants was $52,160 in May 2012, with the highest 10 percent earning more than $72,720 and the lowest 10 percent earning less than $32,420. Physical therapist assistants working in home healthcare services earned the highest national annual mean wages, at $60,730. Salary can vary by employer, experience and education (bls.gov/oes, 2013).

List of Related Careers

Those interested in physical therapy assistant training may want to consider other healthcare career paths. These can include the following professions:

  • Occupational Therapist Assistants: Help clients who are recovering from injuries or illnesses, or suffering from developmental disorders, to manage their daily tasks. An associate degree and state licensure is the pathway to this career.
  • Medical Assistants: Provide clinical and administrative assistance in medical offices, including maintaining health records, measuring patients' vital signs and scheduling appointments. Most medical assistants are trained on the job, but certificate and associate programs are available.
  • Fitness Trainers: Assist clients in their efforts to be fitter and healthier, by teaching exercises, monitoring progress and advising about nutrition and healthy lifestyle choices. Personal trainers who earn a personal trainer certification often face the best job prospects.

Links to Sources and Associations

The following websites offer more information about physical therapy assistant careers:

American Academy of Orthopaedic Manual Physical Therapists

American Physical Therapy Association

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, Physical Therapy Assistants, 2013

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Physical Therapy Assistants and Aides, 2012

Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education

Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy

Physical Therapy Provider Network

Sports Physical Therapy Section