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What Does a Physical Therapist Do?

September 7, 2021

What Does a Physical Therapist DoPhysical therapists have extremely rewarding jobs that are also very demanding. They spend their days diagnosing and treating patients with health conditions that limit their ability to move and perform everyday activities. By restoring their physical function and mobility, physical therapists help these patients to regain strength while promoting overall wellness and improving their quality of life. Through physical therapy, these medical professionals focus on natural healing and avoid invasive options like surgery or heavy medication. To understand the full scope of this job, there is a lot to consider.

Becoming a Physical Therapist

The education to become a physical therapist is designed to provide you with a strong foundation to begin working in any setting, and additional training or specializations are available.

In the United States, the American Physical Therapy Association oversees the profession. Educational programs for physical therapy are offered as a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. These programs are usually three years long, beginning with classroom-based learning and then moving to clinical experiences that provide hands-on training. In order to practice, you then have to pass the national physical therapy exam and apply for a state license.

Some people choose to enroll in a residency or fellowship that provides expertise in a specialty area, though this isn’t a requirement.

Job Responsibilities of a Physical Therapist

The majority of a physical therapist’s day will be spent interacting with patients for therapy sessions. They work directly with patients to understand their medical history, current concerns, and goals in order to create personalized treatment plans for each person. From there, they will conduct recurring therapy sessions focused on functional tasks and exercises to help that person reach their goals.

Some things a physical therapist may do on a daily basis include:

  • Consult with patients to understand their physical conditions and symptoms
  • Diagnose movement dysfunction
  • Develop treatment plans for movement dysfunction
  • Teach patients to properly perform therapeutic exercise techniques
  • Provide stimulation and massage that promotes healing
  • Assist patients with the use of medical devices like wheelchairs or canes
  • Maintain and update patient records to track progress
  • Advise patients and their families about treatments that can be done at home

Most physical therapists also work with other health care providers to collaborate on a patient’s case and reach the best, most holistic outcome.

Physical therapists can also practice in different settings that may impact their daily responsibilities. When working in a hospital, nursing home, or long-term rehabilitation facility, there may be more collaboration with a wide team of providers who develop a care plan together and work closely with a small number of patients. For those practicing in outpatient clinics, there are usually more patients in a day and more targeted treatments.

Physical Therapy Techniques

Physical therapists are able to apply a wide range of treatment methods to their patients, often combining multiple to create a holistic care plan. The basis of most plans will be exercise of some sort, whether it is a simple relaxation exercise or movements like stretching. These are designed to strengthen the body, retain or relearn mobility, and prevent future worsening of any problems. Like many physical therapy methods, exercises usually begin in the office and are then continued at home through a set of instructions provided by a physical therapist.

Exercise may be combined with other treatments, including ultrasound and TENS units. Ultrasound is a deep heating treatment that can be applied to conditions like sprains and strains with a wand called a sound head. This wand is pressed gently against the skin and moved slowly in small circles near the site of your injury, allowing the waves to be absorbed into the skin and muscle. A TENS unit can help decrease pain in damaged tissue by applying light electrical stimulation that teaches your muscles to function properly again.

Other methods may include traction, joint mobilization, heat and cold therapy, and light or laser therapy.

Physical Therapy Specializations

While many physical therapists practice general therapy, there are a number of practice areas that can be chosen as a specialty.

Orthopedic physical therapy focuses heavily on the musculoskeletal system, including bones, ligaments, tendons, and joints. Neurological physical therapists treat conditions related to the nervous system, such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, while cardiopulmonary physical therapists help patients with diseases of the heart and lungs, like obstructive pulmonary disease.

Some therapists also specialize in certain age demographics. Pediatric physical therapists work with children, especially those with birth defects and developmental delays, while a geriatric physical therapist will work with older adults who may be suffering from degenerative conditions like arthritis.

When to See a Physical Therapist

People see physical therapists for one of two reasons: preventing an injury or movement dysfunction, or treating one after the fact.

Prevention often occurs as a pre-surgical and post-surgical regiment, meant to stop any surgery-related problems from occurring and helping patients to heal from their procedure. The surgery may be related to an existing injury, but it can also be unrelated and cause movement restrictions, which physical therapy will try to compensate for through exercises. Some athletes may also seek preventative physical therapy to help them stay in shape and avoid injuries.

If an injury has occurred or a condition has become apparent, a physical therapist can also help to remedy the symptoms you feel and promote healing in the body. Depending on the circumstances, the goal may be to make a full recovery or to extend your quality of life and simply prevent further degeneration. Common reasons to visit a physical therapist in this context include sports injuries, herniated discs, and arthritis.


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