Physical Therapists

Summary

physical therapists image
Physical therapists help injured or ill people improve their movement and manage their pain.
Quick Facts: Physical Therapists
2014 Median Pay $82,390 per year
$39.61 per hour
Typical Entry-Level Education Doctoral or professional degree
Work Experience in a Related Occupation None
On-the-job Training None
Number of Jobs, 2014 210,900
Job Outlook, 2014-24 34% (Much faster than average)
Employment Change, 2014-24 71,800

What Physical Therapists Do

Physical therapists, sometimes called PTs, help injured or ill people improve their movement and manage their pain. These therapists are often an important part of the rehabilitation, treatment, and prevention of patients with chronic conditions, illnesses, or injuries.

Work Environment

Physical therapists typically work in private offices and clinics, hospitals, and nursing homes. They spend much of their time on their feet, actively working with patients.

How to Become a Physical Therapist

Physical therapists entering the profession need a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. All states require physical therapists to be licensed.

Pay

The median annual wage for physical therapists was $82,390 in May 2014.

Job Outlook

Employment of physical therapists is projected to grow 34 percent from 2014 to 2024, much faster than the average for all occupations. Demand for physical therapy services will come from the aging baby boomers, who are staying active later in life. In addition, physical therapists will be needed to treat people with mobility issues stemming from chronic conditions, such as diabetes or obesity.

State & Area Data

Explore resources for employment and wages by state and area for physical therapists.

Similar Occupations

Compare the job duties, education, job growth, and pay of physical therapists with similar occupations.

More Information, Including Links to O*NET

Learn more about physical therapists by visiting additional resources, including O*NET, a source on key characteristics of workers and occupations.

What Physical Therapists Do

Physical therapists
Physical therapists use different forms of treatment depending on the type of patient they are caring for.

Physical therapists, sometimes called PTs, help injured or ill people improve their movement and manage their pain. These therapists are often an important part of rehabilitation, treatment, and prevention of patients with chronic conditions, illnesses, or injuries.

Duties

Physical therapists typically do the following:

  • Review patients’ medical history and any referrals or notes from doctors, surgeons, or other healthcare workers
  • Diagnose patients’ functions and movements by observing them stand or walk and by listening to their concerns, among other methods
  • Develop individualized plans of care for patients, outlining the patients’ goals and the expected outcomes of the plans
  • Use exercises, stretching maneuvers, hands-on therapy, and equipment to ease patients’ pain, help them increase their mobility, prevent further pain or injury, and facilitate health and wellness
  • Evaluate and record a patient’s progress, modifying a plan of care and trying new treatments as needed
  • Educate patients and their families about what to expect from the recovery process and how best to cope with challenges throughout the process

Physical therapists provide care to people of all ages who have functional problems resulting from back and neck injuries; sprains, strains, and fractures; arthritis; amputations; neurological disorders, such as stroke or cerebral palsy; injuries related to work and sports; and other conditions.

Physical therapists are educated to use a variety of different techniques to care for their patients. These techniques include exercises; training in functional movement, which includes the use of equipment such as canes, crutches, wheelchairs, and walkers; and special movements of joints, muscles, and other soft tissue to improve movement and decrease pain.

The work of physical therapists varies by type of patient. For example, a patient working to recover mobility lost after a stroke needs different care from a patient who is recovering from a sports injury. Some physical therapists specialize in one type of care, such as orthopedics or geriatrics. Many physical therapists also help patients to maintain or improve mobility by developing fitness and wellness programs to encourage healthier and more active lifestyles.

Physical therapists work as part of a healthcare team, overseeing the work of physical therapist assistants and aides and consulting with physicians and surgeons and other specialists.

Work Environment

Physical therapists
Physical therapists use exercises and stretching maneuvers to ease patients' pain.

Physical therapists held about 210,900 jobs in 2014. The industries that employed the most physical therapists were as follows:

Offices of physical, occupational and speech therapists, and audiologists 34%
Hospitals; state, local, and private 27
Home healthcare services 12
Nursing and residential care facilities 7
Offices of physicians 5

Physical therapists spend much of their time on their feet, working with patients. Because they must often lift and move patients, they are vulnerable to back injuries. Therapists can limit these risks by using proper body mechanics and lifting techniques when assisting patients.

Work Schedules

Most physical therapists work full time. About 1 in 5 worked part time in 2014. Although most therapists work during normal business hours, some may work evenings or weekends.

How to Become a Physical Therapist

Physical therapists
Physical therapists use a variety of techniques, such as massage and stretching, to treat patients.

Physical therapists need a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. All states require physical therapists to be licensed.

Education

In 2015, there were more than 200 programs for physical therapists accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). All programs offer a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree.

DPT programs typically last 3 years. Most programs require a bachelor’s degree for admission as well as specific educational prerequisites, such as classes in anatomy, physiology, biology, chemistry, and physics. Some programs admit college freshmen into 6- or 7-year programs that allow students to graduate with both a bachelor’s degree and a DPT. Most DPT programs require applicants to apply through the Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service (PTCAS).

Physical therapist programs often include courses in biomechanics, anatomy, physiology, neuroscience, and pharmacology. Physical therapist students also complete at least 30 weeks of clinical work, during which they gain supervised experience in areas such as acute care and orthopedic care.

Physical therapists may apply to and complete a clinical residency program after graduation. Residencies typically last about 1 year and provide additional training and experience in specialty areas of care. Therapists who have completed a residency program may choose to specialize further by completing a fellowship in an advanced clinical area.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

All states require physical therapists to be licensed. Licensing requirements vary by state but all include passing the National Physical Therapy Examination administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. Several states also require a law exam and a criminal background check. Continuing education is typically required for physical therapists to keep their license. Check with state boards for specific licensing requirements.

After gaining work experience, some physical therapists choose to become a board-certified specialist. The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties offers certification in 8 clinical specialty areas, including orthopedics, sports, and geriatric physical therapy. Board specialist certification requires passing an exam and at least 2,000 hours of clinical work or completion of an American Physical Therapy Association (APTA)-accredited residency program in the specialty area.

Important Qualities

Compassion. Physical therapists are often drawn to the profession in part by a desire to help people. They work with people who are in pain and must have empathy for their patients.

Detail oriented. Like other healthcare providers, physical therapists should have strong analytic and observational skills to diagnose a patient’s problem, evaluate treatments, and provide safe, effective care.

Dexterity. Physical therapists must use their hands to provide manual therapy and therapeutic exercises. They should feel comfortable massaging and otherwise physically assisting patients.

Interpersonal skills. Because physical therapists spend a lot of time interacting with patients, they should enjoy working with people. They must be able to clearly explain treatment programs, motivate patients, and listen to patients’ concerns to provide effective therapy.

Physical stamina. Physical therapists spend much of their time on their feet, moving as they demonstrate proper techniques and help patients perform exercises. They should enjoy physical activity.

Resourcefulness. Physical therapists customize treatment plans for patients. They must be flexible and able to adapt plans of care to meet the needs of each patient.

Pay

Physical Therapists

Median annual wages, May 2014

Physical therapists

$82,390

Health diagnosing and treating practitioners

$75,430

Total, all occupations

$35,540

 

The median annual wage for physical therapists was $82,390 in May 2014. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $56,800, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $116,090.

In May 2014, the median annual wages for physical therapists in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Home healthcare services $89,310
Nursing and residential care facilities 88,930
Hospitals; state, local, and private 83,380
Offices of physicians 81,630
Offices of physical, occupational and speech therapists, and audiologists 79,130

Most physical therapists work full time. About 1 in 5 worked part time in 2014. Although most therapists work during normal business hours, some may work evenings or weekends.

Job Outlook

Physical Therapists

Percent change in employment, projected 2014-24

Physical therapists

34%

Health diagnosing and treating practitioners

17%

Total, all occupations

7%

 

Employment of physical therapists is projected to grow 34 percent from 2014 to 2024, much faster than the average for all occupations.

Demand for physical therapy services will come in part from the large number of aging baby boomers, who are staying more active later in life than their counterparts of previous generations. Older people are more likely to experience heart attacks, strokes, and mobility-related injuries that require physical therapy for rehabilitation.

In addition, a number of chronic conditions, such as diabetes and obesity, have become more prevalent in recent years. More physical therapists will be needed to help these patients maintain their mobility and manage the effects of chronic conditions.

Advances in medical technology have increased the use of outpatient surgery to treat a variety of injuries and illnesses. Medical and technological developments also are expected to permit a greater percentage of trauma victims and newborns with birth defects to survive, creating additional demand for rehabilitative care. Physical therapists will continue to play an important role in helping these patients recover more quickly from surgery.

Furthermore, the number of individuals who have access to health insurance is expected to continue to increase because of federal health insurance reform. Physical therapists will be needed to assist patients with rehabilitation and treatment of any chronic conditions or injuries.

Job Prospects

Job opportunities are expected to be good for licensed physical therapists in all settings. Job prospects should be particularly good in acute-care hospitals, skilled-nursing facilities, and orthopedic settings, where the elderly are most often treated. Job prospects should be especially favorable in rural areas because many physical therapists live in highly populated urban and suburban areas.

Employment projections data for physical therapists, 2014-24
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2014 Projected Employment, 2024 Change, 2014-24 Employment by Industry
Percent Numeric

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program

Physical therapists

29-1123 210,900 282,700 34 71,800 [XLSX]

State & Area Data

Occupational Employment Statistics (OES)

The Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) program produces employment and wage estimates annually for over 800 occupations. These estimates are available for the nation as a whole, for individual states, and for metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas. The link(s) below go to OES data maps for employment and wages by state and area.

Projections Central

Occupational employment projections are developed for all states by Labor Market Information (LMI) or individual state Employment Projections offices. All state projections data are available at www.projectionscentral.com. Information on this site allows projected employment growth for an occupation to be compared among states or to be compared within one state. In addition, states may produce projections for areas; there are links to each state’s websites where these data may be retrieved.

Career InfoNet

America’s Career InfoNet includes hundreds of occupational profiles with data available by state and metro area. There are links in the left-hand side menu to compare occupational employment by state and occupational wages by local area or metro area. There is also a salary info tool to search for wages by zip code.

Similar Occupations

This table shows a list of occupations with job duties that are similar to those of physical therapists.

Occupation Job Duties ENTRY-LEVEL EDUCATION 2014 MEDIAN PAY
Audiologists

Audiologists

Audiologists diagnose, manage, and treat a patient’s hearing, balance, or ear problems.

Doctoral or professional degree $73,060
Chiropractors

Chiropractors

Chiropractors treat patients with health problems of the neuromusculoskeletal system, which includes nerves, bones, muscles, ligaments, and tendons. They use spinal adjustments and manipulation, and other techniques to manage patients’ health concerns, such as back and neck pain.

Doctoral or professional degree $66,720
Occupational therapists

Occupational Therapists

Occupational therapists treat injured, ill, or disabled patients through the therapeutic use of everyday activities. They help these patients develop, recover, and improve the skills needed for daily living and working.

Master's degree $78,810
Physical therapist assistants and aides

Physical Therapist Assistants and Aides

Physical therapist assistants, sometimes called PTAs, and physical therapist aides work under the direction and supervision of physical therapists. They help patients who are recovering from injuries and illnesses regain movement and manage pain.

See How to Become One $41,640
Recreational therapists

Recreational Therapists

Recreational therapists plan, direct, and coordinate recreation-based treatment programs for people with disabilities, injuries, or illnesses. These therapists use a variety of modalities, including arts and crafts; drama, music, and dance; sports and games; aquatics; and community outings to help maintain or improve a patient’s physical, social, and emotional well-being.

Bachelor's degree $44,000
Speech-language pathologists

Speech-Language Pathologists

Speech-language pathologists (sometimes called speech therapists) assess, diagnose, treat, and help to prevent communication and swallowing disorders in patients. Speech, language, and swallowing disorders result from a variety of causes, such as a stroke, brain injury, hearing loss, developmental delay, Parkinson’s disease, a cleft palate or autism.

Master's degree $71,550

Contacts for More Information

For more information about physical therapists, visit

American Physical Therapy Association

For more information about accredited physical therapy programs, visit

Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education

For more information about state licensing requirements and about the National Physical Therapy Exam, visit

Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy

For more information about certification, visit

American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties

For more information about how to apply to DPT programs, visit

Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service (PTCAS)

O*NET

Physical Therapists

Suggested citation:

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Physical Therapists,
on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physical-therapists.htm (visited February 12, 2016).

Publish Date: Thursday, December 17, 2015