What are Physical Therapy Assistants?
Physical therapist assistants work to help patients restore physical ability lost to injury, surgery or illness. They work under the supervision of practicing physical therapists, often participating directly in patient care. PTAs may help patients manage pain or occasionally perform responsibilities such as educating family members about patients' treatment. These professionals may work with techniques such as exercise and stretching, hydrotherapy, electrical stimulation, mechanical traction, ultrasound, massage and balance training. PTAs can be found in diverse settings including hospitals and nursing care facilities. For more information, see our physical therapy assistant career page.
Physical Therapy Assistant Program Overview
Physical therapy assistant programs may be available at community colleges, junior colleges, trade schools or career academies, through on-campus environments, online schools or hybrid programs with practical components and some class time spent online. Students without a local institution nearby can turn to online colleges or traditional schools that offer distance learning. Online PTA programs also offer flexible scheduling, allowing students with busy schedules to complete their coursework when they have time available.
Typical classroom subject matter includes human anatomy and physiology, psychology, clinical rehabilitation practices and procedures, and therapeutic exercise modalities and kinesiology. Depending on the program, students may also explore topics such as neuroscience, communications and ethics. Both online and campus-based physical therapy assistant schools may offer internship, externship or other clinical experience opportunities. Aspiring physical therapy assistants generally earn an associate degree from accredited PTA programs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in contrast to physical therapy aides, who may have a high school education with on-the-job training.
Physical Therapy Assistant Program Types
PTA programs typically offer an Associate of Science (A.S.) or Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.). Programs can take anywhere from one three years of study, depending on the course load and the amount and type of previous education a student has completed. Studies include some fairly standard college core courses, such as general education classes in math or algebra.
Most states require students to graduate from a physical therapist assistant program that has been recognized by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education and pass the National Physical Therapy Examination before a valid license to practice can be awarded. Some states may require additional exams as well as continuing education to maintain one's credential, according to the BLS. As licensing requirements vary by state, students can contact their state licensing board to find out if any additional steps might be required of them after graduation.
Physical Therapy Assistant Course Descriptions
Physical therapy assistant degree curricula can vary from school to school, but most PTA programs tend to have certain parts of their core curriculum in common. Here's a list of some typical courses that students can expect to see on their schedule:
- Human Musculature: Overview of the various muscular systems of the human body and how they work.
- Applied Kinesiology: Study of body movement and anatomical structure, with an emphasis on the particular motions and muscle actions of physical therapy.
- Physiology and Physiology Lab: Academic review of the functions of the human body, coupled with experiments demonstrating fundamental physiological principles.
- Therapeutic Exercise: Introduction to the use of the principles of exercise to treat injury and disease.
- Physical Therapy Assistant Procedures: Treatment of injuries and disabilities using physical agents ranging from heat, cold and water to electrical stimulation, ultrasound and biofeedback.
Possible Career Options
The BLS foresees high demand for physical therapy assistants in the period between 2010 and 2020, as the American population ages (bls.gov/ooh, 2012). Studies at physical therapy assistant schools can also be used as stepping stones to other healthcare careers. After fulfilling all educational and relevant credentialing requirements, professionals with a background in physical therapy assisting can explore the following careers:
- Licensed Practical/Vocational Nurses: Monitor patients' health and administer basic nursing care, report patient status to registered nurses and doctors, discuss healthcare with patients and keep records of their treatment progress.
- Occupational Therapist Assistants: Work with a wide range of patients, including at-risk youth and the chronically ill. These professionals may also help patients learn to use specialized therapeutic equipment and lead children with developmental disabilities in play activities designed to develop coordination.
- Registered Nurses: Administer medicines and other treatments to patients as well as perform medical tests, analyze results and consult with doctors to design treatment plans. RNs also observe patients, operate sophisticated equipment and monitor patient progress using diagnostic tools.
Links to Sources and Associations
Prospective students can visit the following websites to find out more about physical therapy assistant programs:
American Physical Therapy Association, http://www.apta.org/
Bureau of Labor Statistics, Physical Therapy Assistants and Aides, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2013, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physical-therapist-assistants-and-aides.htm
CAPTE: Accredited PT and PTA Programs, http://www.capteonline.org/apta/directories/accreditedschools.aspx
Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education, http://www.capteonline.org/home.aspx