A physical therapist assistant (PTA) works with a physical therapist (PT) in clinics or other medical settings to implement treatment plans and provide patient care to those suffering from conditions affecting their mobility. During their work, PTAs help PTs carry out rehabilitation plans so patients regain strength, recover from surgery, improve athletic performance, or heal from an injury or disease.
Being a PTA can be a rewarding career for those looking to join the growing field of health care. If you're interested in pursuing a patient-facing health care position, then you might consider pursuing a career as a PTA.
In this article, you'll learn more about what physical therapist assistants are, their duties, and how much they earn. You'll also find what you'll need to do to become one, explore related careers, and encounter suggested cost-effective courses that can help you gain job-relevant skills today.
A physical therapist assistant (PTA) works in collaboration with a physical therapist (PT) to provide patients with rehabilitative care as they work to regain movement and mobility due to illness, injury, aging, or other disorder. PTAs may also help patients manage pain, meet fitness goals, or prevent injury through such methods as heat or ice therapy, stretching, and massages.
A physical therapy assistant (PTA) is not the same as a physical therapist (PT).
A PT must possess a doctoral degree in physical therapy, while a PTA is only required to have an associate degree from a PTA program or a bachelor's degree in a related field, such as kinesiology. A PTA carries out therapies and implements plans devised by a physical therapist.
In short, PTs devise patient treatment plans, whereas PTAs help them implement those plans with patients.
The exact duties a PTA performs will vary based on the clinic in which they work, the type of injury or medical concern, and the physical therapist with whom they work. Nonetheless, some common duties a PTA may perform include:
Sanitizing work areas
Preparing therapy equipment
Observing patients and patient progress
Assisting patients through exercises
Working directly with patients on therapy
Treating patients with therapeutic interventions
Teaching patients how to use equipment
Educating patients and their loved ones
Preparing medical reports
Prevention and education
It’s important to note that physical therapist assistant roles may look a little different based on the population with whom they work.
Physical therapist assistants earn a slightly higher than average salary and have a very positive job outlook over the coming years.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), physical therapist assistants earn a median annual salary $49,180 per year, which is slightly higher than the median salary for all occupations combined ($45,760) . The highest 10 percent of all earners brought in an annual average pay of $80,170 a year, while the lowest 10 percent earned an average of $37,280 annually. The exact salary you'll earn, though, will likely depend on common factors like your location, employer, and work experience.
Overall, the job outlook for physical therapist assistants is very positive. According to the US BLS, for instance, the number of job openings for physical therapist assistants and aides is projected to grow by 24 percent between 2021 and 2031, resulting in approximately 25,500 job openings each year throughout the decade . This growth is largely due to an aging population, advances in medical technologies, and chronic illnesses or disabilities that require rehabilitation.
To become a PTA, you must obtain the proper degree, become licensed, and hone the right skills through work experience and training. If you're looking to join the profession, here are some of the steps you can expect to take:
To qualify for the licensing exam required to become a PTA, you must have either an associate degree from an accredited PTA program or possess a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology, exercise science, or a related field.
While bachelor's degree programs usually take about four years to complete, most PTA programs take two years to finish and include hands-on clinical experience, clinical observation, and lab work in addition to coursework. No standard prerequisites exist for admittance into a PTA program, but both bachelor's degrees and PTA programs usually require applicants to possess a high school diploma or GED.
During your formal PTA training, you'll most likely obtain cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and basic life support (BLS) certifications, which will be a requirement to work as a PTA.
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After graduating from your program, you’re ready to take the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE), offered through the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. This is a national requirement for all states, except Colorado and Hawaii, if you want to become a licensed PTA.
Once you pass this exam, you will be a licensed PTA, but keep in mind every state will have additional requirements for licensure. Requirements may include a criminal background check, proof of liability insurance, jurisprudence assessment, a copy of transcripts from your PTA program, or state-specific exams. Most states also require license renewal every two years.
After graduation and passing the NPTE, reach out to PT clinics or other organizations that hire PTAs to gain relevant work experience. This is a key step in honing your skills as a PTA and finding a physical therapist assistant job.
Professional experience has many benefits, from networking to resume building. When choosing a clinic or organization, consider what type of rehabilitation work interests you. For example, you might decide that you'd like to focus on sports-related injuries or surgery rehabilitation.
Find a focus and look for an employer who offers work in the environment that suits you best.
PTAs must posses a mix of human and technical skills to ensure they do the best possible job. Here are some of the skills you should consider honing, if you're looking to join the field:
Communication: PTAs must possess effective communication skills since the core of their job requires them to work directly with both patients and their physical therapists.
Active listening: PTAs must be equally adept at listening to PTs as they provide detailed instructions and patients as they provide feedback on how they feel.
Equipment knowledge: A PTA will use a wide variety of equipment when working with patients, from exercise equipment like therabands and medicine balls to therapeutic devices like electric stimulation and ultrasound. As a result, it's important to understand the use of each tool.
Anatomical and physiological knowledge: PTAs must have a strong grasp of human anatomy and physiology to provide the best possible care to their patients.
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If you are currently working as a PTA or considering the next steps to begin your physical therapy assistant career, consider these potential future roles:
Earn your doctorate in physical therapy to become a physical therapist. This pathway may take a while but bridge programs may help to accelerate the path for PTAs transitioning to PTs.
Earn a post-professional degree or certification like APTA’s PTA Advanced Proficiency Pathways to become a specialized PTA. You can earn this certification in one of eight areas: pediatrics, oncology, wound management, orthopedics, acute care, geriatrics, cardiovascular/pulmonary, and neurology.
Gain professional experience as a PTA to apply as a rehab director. Some employers may ask for a bachelor’s degree in a related field, but the majority like to see experience in the health care industry in a position like a PTA.
Enroll in APTA’s Credentialed Clinical Instructor Program (CCIP) to become a clinical instructor, site coordinator of clinical education, or director of clinical education. These roles require varying levels of professional experience and completion of level 1 of the CCIP.
Several jobs are related to a physical therapist assistant. Most of these related careers are also health care support jobs.
A physical therapist aide is someone who supports a PT and PTA by helping them prep patients and patient areas. They do not perform any medical tasks and do not work hands-on with patients as a PTA or PT would.
An occupational therapy aide is also similar to a PTA in that they work in similar settings and prepare patients for treatments, but they do not have licensure or the same training. Like a physical therapist aide, an occupational therapy aide is more of a support staff member who works on the clerical side rather than the medical.
Working as a PTA can be a rewarding career in health care support. Learning more about the overall field of physical therapy can help you know the best way to launch your career.
If you’re interested in pursuing a career as a PTA, then you might consider taking a cost-effective, flexible course through Coursera to gain job-relevant skills. In the University of Toronto's Managing Your Health: The Role of Physical Therapy and Exercise, you'll such job-relevant as exercise and cardiovascular disease and the importance of physical activity.
In the University of Michigan's Anatomy Specialization, meanwhile, you'll learn the the foundations of Human Anatomy, including the major organ systems and their functions and relationships within the body.
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PTAs can treat patients with exercises, therapeutic interventions, stretching and massage, and medical equipment designed to assist in the manipulation and movement of the muscles, such as electronic stimulation or ultrasound. PTAs do not create rehabilitation care plans but carry out plans devised by the PT with which they work. They are not allowed to evaluate or assess a patient. They may also not be permitted to carry out certain more complicated procedures or therapies.
An associates degree in PTA costs an average of $2,500 a year at a community college and an average of $10,000 annually at a private community college. The cost for the required National Exam (NPTE) is $350, which is not included in the tuition cost. Many schools offer federal financial aid options for applicable students. Cost may vary based on program structure (online options, for example) and school.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, entry-level PTAs make between $58,190 and $76,600 a year. 2 This amount is a range from the lowest 10 percent earners to the median amount of earners in the US. Entry-level PTAs may make more or less than this range depending on factors like location and employer type.
US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Occupational Outlook Handbook Physical Therapist Assistants and Aides, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physical-therapist-assistants-and-aides.htm.” Accessed February 10, 2023.
US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Occupational Outlook Handbook Physical Therapist Assistants and Aide Pay, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physical-therapist-assistants-and-aides.htm#tab-5.” Accessed February 10, 2023.
US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Occupational Outlook Handbook Physical Therapist Assistants and Aide Job Outlook, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physical-therapist-assistants-and-aides.htm#tab-6.” Accessed February 10, 2023.
This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.