What Is a Physical Therapist?

Photo of physical therapist working with older adult.
Your physical therapist can help you regain mobility after injury or illness.. Fuse/Getty Images

Physical therapists are licensed professionals who work with people that have sustained disabilities, impairments, or limitations in their overall physical function and mobility. These deviations can be the result of disease, injury, or illness.  Physical therapists may also work with people to help them prevent injuries.

How Do Physical Therapists Help People Regain Mobility?

Physical therapists examine, evaluate, diagnose, develop treatment plans, and provide a prognosis for each patient on an individual basis.

They use therapeutic modalities such as exercise, joint mobilizations, hot packs, ice packs, and electrical stimulation to help restore your mobility and decrease pain with the goal of helping you return to your prior functional level.

Physical therapists evaluate and assess various impairments that occur after injury or illness.  These impairments may include:

From the initial examination, your physical therapist then develops a treatment plan specific to correcting the pertinent physical findings. Your individual treatment plan is geared toward reaching specific rehabilitation goals that are set by you and your physical therapist. 

Rehabilitation strategies often involve specific exercises to stretch and strengthen muscles as well as to improve posture, balance, and endurance. Physical modalities including heat, cold, ultrasound, and electrical stimulation are also incorporated into most treatment sessions.

Traction machines and massage are two other valuable techniques for functional improvement and pain reduction. Assistive devices such as crutches, canes, and walkers are often used to increase patient independence with walking.

Over the course of your rehabilitation program physical therapists document progress, re-evaluate physical findings, and modify treatment strategies as appropriate.

They often work as a team with a variety of other professionals including physicians, speech pathologists, occupational therapists and recreational therapists all with the same goal of reaching maximal patient functional independence.

Where do Physical Therapists Work?

Physical therapists work in a variety of different settings.  These may include:

  • Hospitals
  • Schools
  • Nursing homes
  • Sports medicine and athletic facilities
  • Outpatient clinics
  • In your home
  • Rehabilitation facilities

Whenever you have a physical limitation that deviates from your normal function, you may benefit from the skilled services of a physical therapist to help you regain your independence.

Physical Therapist Education

In the United States, your physical therapists are educated at colleges and universities accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE).  In the past, your physical therapist was required to have a bachelor's degree in physical therapy.  

Currently, a master's degree is necessary to become a physical therapist, and the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) is currently encouraging all physical therapists to achieve a clinical doctorate degree in physical therapy, called a DPT.

 Therefore, many schools offer the DPT degree for their physical therapy students. 

Even if your PT does not have a doctorate level degree, he or she is still qualified to provide your rehab services.  The APTA allows therapists who received their degree prior to the new requirements to continue to practice.  And remember, physical therapists are required to further their professional  education through ongoing learning in continuing education classes.

Treatment Across the Life Span

Many people wonder if they are able to benefit from the services of a physical therapist.  Who do PTs normally treat?

Physical therapists are qualified to evaluate and treat all people across the lifespan.  Specific populations that physical therapists work with include:

  • Pediatrics from birth through age 12
  • Teenagers
  • Adults
  • Athletes
  • Geriatric and older adults

If you have any condition that prevents you from enjoying full, pain free mobility, you should find a physical therapist who can assess your situation and determine if you will benefit from PT.

Your physical therapist is a healthcare specialist who is trained to help you move better and feel better after an injury or illness or as part of an injury prevention program.  If you are having difficulty with functional mobility, visit your PT to learn how you can return to optimal activity quickly and safely.

Edited by Brett Sears, PT.

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