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 degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Does a Physical Therapy Assistant Do?

Physical therapy assistants, or PTAs, deal directly with patients as they work under the supervision of a physical therapist and help clients with their treatment plans. Patients are generally individuals who are recovering from an illness or an injury. PTAs also help in the area of pain management. They assist patients in the performance of treatment-related exercises, explain treatment to patients and their families and instruct them regarding the proper steps to take once treatment has been completed. 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 All states require licensure or certification
Job Growth (2018-2028) 27%
Median Salary (2018) $58,040*

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 all 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. 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.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

To qualify for a position as a nursing assistant or nursing aide, an individual must complete a state-approved education program and a period of on-the-job training, as well as passing a state competency examination. Patient care duties include taking and monitoring the patient's vital signs, cleaning and bathing patients, re-positioning them as needed, assisting in dressing and seeing to the patient's meals. They are also called upon to address a patient's health questions and report that information to the nurse.

Another profession related to patient care is medical assisting. In most states, an individual can qualify for this position with a postsecondary nondegree award, such as a certificate. In small facilities, medical assistants may be required to perform clinical and administrative duties, whereas in larger facilities, medical assistants may specialize in one area or the other. Administrative duties can include scheduling appointments, recording patient histories and entering relevant information into medical records. Clinical duties might include measuring vital signs, preparing blood samples and administering medications, if allowed by law.

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