Physical therapists help restore function, improve mobility, relieve pain, and prevent or limit permanent physical disabilities of patients suffering from injuries or disease. They restore, maintain and promote overall fitness and health. Their patients include accident victims and individuals with disabling conditions, such as low back pain, arthritis, heart disease, fractures, head injuries and cerebral palsy.
Therapists examine patients' medical histories, then test and measure their strength, range of motion, balance and coordination, posture, muscle performance, respiration and motor function. They also determine patients' ability to be independent and reintegrate into the community or workplace after injury or illness. Next, they develop treatment plans describing a treatment strategy, its purpose and anticipated outcome.
Treatment often includes exercise for patients who have been immobilized and lack flexibility, strength or endurance. They encourage patients to use their own muscles to increase flexibility and range of motion before finally advancing to other exercises improving strength, balance, coordination and endurance. Their goal is to improve how an individual functions at work and home.
Physical therapists use electrical stimulation, hot packs or cold compresses and ultrasound to relieve pain and reduce swelling. They may use traction or deep-tissue massage to relieve pain. Therapists also teach patients to use crutches, prostheses and wheelchairs. They also show patients exercises to do at home to expedite their recovery.
As treatment continues, physical therapists document progress, conduct periodic examinations and modify treatments when necessary. Such documentation is used to track the patient's progress and identify areas requiring more or less attention.
Some physical therapists treat a wide range of ailments; others specialize in areas such as pediatrics, geriatrics, orthopedics, sports medicine, neurology and cardiopulmonary physical therapy.
Most full-time physical therapists work a 40-hour week, which may include evenings and weekends. The job can be physically demanding because therapists often have to stoop, kneel, crouch, lift and stand for long periods. In addition, physical therapists move heavy equipment and lift patients or help them turn, stand or walk.
All states require physical therapists to pass a licensure exam before they can practice, after graduating from an accredited physical therapist educational program. A number of states require continuing education to maintain licensure.
Besides classroom and laboratory instruction, physical therapist students receive supervised clinical experience. Courses useful when applying to physical therapist educational programs include anatomy, biology, chemistry, social science, mathematics and physics. Before granting admission, many professional education programs require experience as a volunteer in a physical therapy department of a hospital or clinic.
Physical therapists should have strong interpersonal skills to successfully educate patients about their physical therapy treatments. They should also be compassionate and possess a desire to help patients. Similar traits also are needed to interact with the patient's family.
Employment of physical therapists is expected to grow faster than the average for all occupations through 2010. The rapidly growing elderly population is particularly vulnerable to chronic and debilitating conditions that require therapeutic services. Also, the baby-boom generation is entering the prime age for heart attacks and strokes, increasing the demand for cardiac and physical rehabilitation.
Widespread interest in health promotion also should increase demand for physical therapy services. A growing number of employers are using physical therapists to evaluate worksites, develop exercise programs and teach safe work habits to employees in the hope of reducing injuries.
Physical therapists held about 132,000 jobs in 2000; about one-fourth worked part time. About two-thirds of physical therapists were employed in either hospitals or offices of physical therapists. Median annual earnings of physical therapists were $54,810 in 2000.
Additional information on a career as a physical therapist and a list of accredited educational programs in physical therapy are available from:
American Physical Therapy Association, 1111 North Fairfax St., Alexandria, VA 22314-1488.
Adapted from the Labor Department's Occupational Outlook Handbook.