How to Become a Physical Therapy Assistant in 5 Steps

Research what it takes to become a physical therapy assistant. Learn about job duties, education requirements, licensure and job outlook to find out if this is the career for you. Schools offering Physical Therapy Assistant degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

Career Information At a Glance

Physical therapy assistants work under the supervision of a physical therapist and help clients with their treatment plans. The following chart gives you an overview about a career as a physical therapy assistant.

Degree Required Associate's degree
Education Field of Study Physical therapist assistant
Key Responsibilities Assist patients with performing therapeutic exercises; observe patient progress and report status to physical therapist; use devices and equipment for therapy; use therapeutic massage and stretching techniques
Licensure and/or Certification 49 states require licensure
Job Growth (2012-2022) 41%
Median Salary (2013) $53,360*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Is a Physical Therapy Assistant?

A physical therapy assistant is a medical technician who supports physical therapists by providing rehabilitative treatment to patients. Your therapy-related duties could include conferring with the therapist about treatment plans and explaining the exercises to patients. You might need to transfer and position patients on therapy equipment and motivate or encourage them during exercise sessions. You could administer light, heat, electrical or sound stimulation or help fit patients with braces and prosthetic devices. During and following therapy sessions, you could compile and maintain medical records that document treatment progress.

Step 1: Prepare in High School

In a limited number of cases, a high school diploma or GED might be enough education to become an assistant. Although high schools typically don't offer physical therapy courses, you can start to prepare for the occupation by taking courses in biology, health, algebra and physics.

Step 2: Earn an Associate's Degree

Many states require you to have an associate's degree to work in this field. Degree programs are available from community, vocational and technical colleges, medical schools and private, for-profit schools. Programs use a combination of classroom study, labs and clinical internships to train you to perform therapeutic techniques, gather research, use medical technology and interact with patients and colleagues. Common course topics include kinesiology, functional anatomy and medical terminology.

Step 3: Obtain a License

In most states, you need a credential to practice, whether it's registration, certification or licensure. Completing an accredited training program and passing the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE) are typical state requirements. Some states could also have developed an exam of their own that you have to pass instead of or in addition to the NPTE. To maintain your license, you might have to earn continuing education credits.

Step 4: Get Experience

Your primary experience could be obtained through a degree program. Most physical therapy assistant programs include clinical practicums or internships that allow you to learn by working under an experienced professional. Once you graduate, you could work in a wide assortment of potential settings. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the two largest include hospitals and the private offices of physical therapists (www.bls.gov). Nursing homes, home health care services and physicians' offices are other possibilities.

Step 5: Advance Your Career

One avenue of advancement in the field would be to choose a specialization. Some of your options include neuromuscular, musculoskeletal, pediatric and geriatric therapy. You could also advance to an administrative position, supervising therapy assistants or managing an entire department. If you want to become a physical therapist, you'll need to earn a post-baccalaureate or master's degree. You might need to complete a bachelor's degree program in order to qualify for admission to a graduate program in physical therapy.

To continue researching, browse degree options below for course curriculum, prerequisites and financial aid information. Or, learn more about the subject by reading the related articles below:

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