Physical Therapy Degree

Physical therapy is a method of health care that aims to restore, maintain, and promote physical mobility in patients of all ages who have limited ability to move or perform physical activities in their daily lives.

  • A Physical Therapist (PT) is a licensed health care professional who uses a variety of treatments such as stretching, physical manipulation, strengthening exercises, heat/cold treatment, hydrotherapy (involving exercises in pools or tubs), electrical stimulation, and massage to help the patient achieve better health and mobility, less pain, and more independence.
  • A PT will have a minimum of 4 years of coursework emphasizing such topics as anatomy, biomechanics/kinesiology (the study of human movement), and therapeutic procedures and in order to practice, must pass a national licensing exam. Most physical therapists will have earned a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree. A Physical Therapy Assistant will have earned an Associate's Degree and assists the PT in the treatment of the patient.

Physical therapy is beneficial to a wide variety of patients, including those with:

  • Sports or orthopedic injuries
  • The elderly
  • Patients with neurological conditions
  • Patients with musculoskeletal diseases

Physical therapy is often ordered for a patient by a physician. The PT evaluates each patient, examining factors such as range of motion, muscle strength, balance and coordination and then designs and administers a treatment plan specifically for that individual's needs. Physical Therapists treat patients in a variety of settings such as hospitals, private clinics, sports and fitness centers, home health agencies, schools, and nursing homes. Anyone seeking a physical therapy degree should have good interpersonal skills, be a good listener as well as a good teacher, and enjoy working closely with people. There are several types of physical therapy degrees and a number of areas in which a PT may specialize.

Qualities of Someone in the Physical Therapy Field

Professionals with a physical therapy degree assist patients recovering from injuries, disease, stroke, surgery, illnesses, or developmental disorders and help them regain strength and mobility through a variety of exercise, stretching and treatments. There are many qualities that are desirable in a good physical therapy professional.Above all, whether a physical therapy aide, assistant or a physical therapist, the individual should possess a strong desire to help others; their entire career is based around helping their patients.

  • A physical therapist has to be intelligent. Physical therapy degree training programs are highly competitive so only the brightest gain admission, succeed in the program and pass the difficult licensing exam.
  • Therapists must possess an excellent science background and knowledge of anatomy and kinesiology gained through an extensive training. They should have an excellent overall understanding of how the human body functions and what can go wrong with it.
  • Due to the hands-on, interactive nature of the patient exercises, the physical therapist must possess some level of coordination, dexterity, and strength.

Because the physical therapist will be working with all types of patients, he should possess very good people skills. Patients are often in pain and therefore, may be irritable. Patients may be very young or very old. Patients may often be disabled, either physically or mentally, which can sometimes make some people feel uncomfortable. But a good physical therapist will be comfortable working with all types of patients and know how to bring out their best. Further, good interpersonal skills are required because the therapist is usually just one member of an extensive health care team and will need to interact constructively with nurses, physicians, assistants and aides.

  • A physical therapist should be motivational; they will need to push people to their mental and physical extremes in order to get the greatest benefit from their therapy. A good therapist can get that extra set of reps from the tired patient.
  • Patience is another valued quality. Therapy is often a slow, painful process, which can take many months to see significant gain. Also, patience may need to be displayed with patients who are non- compliant or have poor attitudes.
  • Teaching skills are also valuable as the therapist needs to explain different techniques, procedures and exercises to patients in a clear way that the patient will understand and therefore, be able to perform even at home.
  • Good communication skills are essential. A physical therapist should also have good problem solving skills. He must diagnose the patient’s problems and know how to address the issues. Each patient is different and will require an individualized treatment plan designed by the therapist.
  • A good therapist is also compassionate and caring and truly wants to help his patients. The therapist’s positive attitude will help motivate the patient who is struggling with difficult tasks.

A physical therapist should also be a life-long learner. Not only is continuing education coursework required to maintain licensure, but a good therapist will have a desire to keep up and learn the latest techniques and newest methods to help his patients achieve success. An outgoing, warm and positive personality will also go a long way toward establishing the trust and cooperation of the patient. The patient needs to feel comfortable working with the therapist.

A good physical therapist should also be flexible and open to experimentation. Each individual patient will require his own personalized treatment plan and what works for one patient may not work well for another; so the therapist should be open to trying alternatives. A therapist should also be a good listener; hearing what the patient has to say is an important part of making a diagnosis and designing a treatment plan that is appropriate for the patient. Finally, attention to detail and good written communication skills are needed since medical notes and charts are a primary means of communication between the physical therapist and other health professionals.

History of Physical Therapy

Physical Therapy (or physiotherapy as it was originally called) has a history dating as far back as ancient Greece. The Greek physician Hippocrates advocated massage and hydrotherapy to help heal patients and writings from ancient Egyptian, Chinese and Persian societies also touted the benefits of massage and exercise of the joints to reduce pain and promote healing. However, what we would consider modern physical therapy techniques have a much more recent history.

  • The earliest example of professionals specifically trained in techniques of message, exercise, and manipulation was a Swedish group founded in 1813 to work with gymnasts. Reflecting this origin, the Swedish word for Physical Therapist is “sjukgymnast” which translates as “sick gymnast.” In the late 1800s, specially trained nurses in England formed a group, the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, that focused on physical therapy techniques known to be beneficial to patients and began training others. Other groups and schools soon opened around the world, with the demand for physical therapy driven rapidly by world events.
  • For example, polio epidemics in the first half of the twentieth century created a great need for physical therapists to assist those crippled by the virus to become more mobile and independent. The disease left many patients with muscle atrophy and poor flexibility, requiring intensive physical therapy treatments. In 1927, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who would later become President of the United States, founded the Georgia Warm Springs Institution. Roosevelt had been stricken with polio earlier in his life and found that swimming in the warm waters helped strengthen his muscles, which had been weakened from the disease. The institute treats thousands of patients annually and still exists today as the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation.
  • World Wars I and II left many with devastating injuries and needing rehabilitation. In the United States, the US military was instrumental in establishing the importance of physical therapy degree training programs as they faced the need to care for the 200,000 troops returning home with injuries sustained in the First World War. Reed College in Portland, Oregon and Walter Reed Army Medical Center were among the first to train these “Reconstruction Aides,” as the first physical therapists were called. The American Physical Therapy Association (originally called the American Women’s Physical Therapeutic Association) was formed in 1921 with 274 charter members. Men were later admitted and the number of members swelled to nearly 1,000 by 1940. Demand for physical therapists grew tremendously with polio outbreaks and the Second World War and by the 1960s, there were more than 15,000 members. Today the association is composed of more than 74,000 members and approximately 200 institutions offer physical therapy degree training programs.

Physical Therapy Associations and Journals

Most people with a physical therapy degree belong to one or more professional societies. The largest is the nation-wide American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) whose membership includes both physical therapists and physical therapy assistants. There are numerous state and local organizations as well, such as the New York Physical Therapy Association and the Illinois Physical Therapy Association. In addition, the APTA has many specialty associations that focus on a more specific aspect of physical therapy interests. The Geriatrics Section and the Sports Physical Therapy Section are just two examples of specialty sections within the APTA that have their own membership, publications, officers, and meetings. Besides the APTA, there are other professional organizations that physical therapists and physical therapy assistants sometimes join. For example, the National Rehabilitation Association brings together members from physical therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy and other professions.

There are many reasons for joining a professional association. One of the most important is that it is a good way to stay up-to-date on current trends, treatments, research, and issues facing the profession. Organizations like the APTA publish research journals, and a subscription to the journal is often included as part of the membership fee. For example, Physical Therapy Journal is the official publication of the APTA. These peer-reviewed journals feature research on new methodologies, evolving thought on treatment effectiveness, word on changes in administrative procedures and licensure requirements, and other topical issues important to the field. These organizations also typically have meetings at least annually; these are good places not only to network, but also to attend many courses or seminars that qualify for continuing education credits. The meetings also provide a chance to hear about the latest research and thoughts from leaders in the field. Another perk is that members of the association typically may register for meetings and courses at substantially discounted rates.

Networking is another good reason to join a professional association. By keeping in contact with other members, one can often hear about job opportunities or find the perfect candidate for an opening. Many organizations even maintain job posting websites.

Besides journal publications, professional organizations are also a valuable resource for other information. Websites and newsletters often announce changes in the field, summarize the latest research, and provide information on various occupational topics. The APTA also publishes a Guide to Physical Therapist Practice which is a comprehensive guide to current best approaches for treating various conditions. Many of the publications and other resources are free or greatly discounted for members or available only to members.

Professional organizations also provide advocacy for the occupation. They stay current on issues important to the profession and advocate for the benefit of the members, for example by lobbying congress on healthcare reform bills and increasing Medicare payments for physical therapy. The APTA also performs a public relations and marketing role, making the public aware of the role physical therapy can play in improving health and life. Professional organizations promote career development, not only through continuing education but also through leadership development. Members have the opportunity to serve on committees or in leadership roles that effect policy, education, and future development of the profession. Finally, some organizations offer scholarships, financial aid, and grants to members on a competitive basis.

Last Updated: 05/13/2014

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