What is a Physical Therapist?

Also known as: Registered Physical Therapist, Outpatient Physical Therapist, Home Care Physical Therapist, Pediatric Physical Therapist, Cardiopulmonary Physical Therapist, Neurological Physical Therapist, Geriatric Physical Therapist, Orthopedic Physical Therapist.

A physical therapist is someone who helps people with injuries or illnesses improve their movement and manage their pain. They are often an important part of rehabilitation and treatment of patients with chronic conditions or injuries. They typically work in private offices and clinics, hospitals, and nursing homes. They spend much of their time on their feet, actively working with patients.

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What does a Physical Therapist do?

Physical therapists typically do the following:

  • Diagnose patients’ dysfunctional movements by watching them stand or walk and by listening to their concerns, among other methods
  • Set up a plan for their patients, outlining the patient's goals and the planned treatments
  • Use exercises, stretching maneuvers, hands-on therapy, and equipment to ease patients’ pain and to help them increase their ability to move
  • Evaluate a patient’s progress, modifying a treatment plan and trying new treatments as needed
  • Educate patients and their families about what to expect during recovery from injury and illness and how best to cope with what happens

Physical therapists provide care to people of all ages who have functional problems resulting from back and neck injuries; sprains, strains, and fractures; arthritis; amputations; stroke; birth conditions, such as cerebral palsy; injuries related to work and sports; and other conditions. They are trained to use a variety of different techniques—sometimes called modalities—to care for their patients. These techniques include applying heat and cold, hands-on stimulation or massage, and using assistive and adaptive devices and equipment.

The work of physical therapists varies with the type of patients they serve. For example, a patient suffering from loss of mobility due to Parkinson’s disease needs different care than an athlete recovering from an injury. Some physical therapists specialize in one type of care, such as pediatrics (treating children) or sports physical therapy.

They work as part of a healthcare team, overseeing the work of physical therapist assistants and aides and consulting with physicians and surgeons and other specialists. They also work at preventing loss of mobility by developing fitness- and wellness-oriented programs to encourage healthier and more active lifestyles.

The field of physical therapy has sub-specialties in five areas:

Orthopedic Physical Therapists focus on restoring function to the musculoskeletal system, and many sports injuries fall into this category. Joints, tendons, ligaments, and bones are treated with stretching, strength training, endurance exercises, hot and cold packs, ultrasound, electrical muscle stimulation, and joint mobilization.

Geriatric Physical Therapists focus on older adults, and treat for conditions such as arthritis, cancer, osteoporosis, Alzheimer's disease, joint replacement, and balance disorders. The goal is to help restore mobility, reduce pain, accommodate physical limitations, and increase physical fitness.

Neurological Physical Therapists focus on neurological conditions and impairments, such as Alzheimer's disease, brain injury, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injury, and stroke. Treatment attempts to achieve function for living as independently as possible for as long as possible.

Cardiopulmonary Physical Therapists focus on helping individuals who suffer from cardiovascular and pulmonary conditions, such as heart attacks, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and pulmonary fibrosis. The goal is to increase endurance and improve functional independence.

Pediatric Physical Therapists focus on the needs of infants, toddlers, children, and adolescents. Physical therapy is used for injury, birth defects, developmental delays, genetic disorders, head trauma, limb deficiencies, muscle diseases and orthopedic disabilities.

What is the workplace of a Physical Therapist like?

Physical therapists typically work in private offices and clinics, hospitals, and nursing homes. They spend much of their time on their feet, being active. Some physical therapists are self-employed, meaning that they own or are partners in owning their practice.



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Further Reading

  • Physical Therapist: Career Information

    People who have been in accidents or have disabling conditions such as low-back pain, arthritis, heart disease, fractures, head injuries and cerebral palsy turn to physical therapists for help. These health professionals use a variety of techniques, called modalities, to restore function, improve mobility, relieve pain and prevent or limit permanent physical disabilities in their patients.

  • A Day In The Life: Physical Therapist

    As a part-time physical therapist at Akron Children’s Hospital, Smolk spends her days evaluating and treating outpatients and inpatients mainly in the pediatric ICU and hematology/oncology department.

  • A Day In The Life Of A Physical Therapist

    I was drawn to physical therapy (PT) as a profession because of the peer relationship I observed between the physical therapists and the physicians. There also seemed to be more of a one-on-one relationship between physical therapists and their patients.

  • 10 Traits Of Highly-Effective Physical Therapists

    Continuing our look at our picks for the top attributes for medical professions, we turn to the highly-rewarding field of physical therapy and ask what makes for an effective (and successful) therapist.

  • Chartered Physiotherapist Vs Physical Therapist - What's The Difference?

    Although sometimes used interchangeably the titles 'Physiotherapist' and 'physical therapist' are actually quite distinct from each other. Inspired by a recent question from one of our clients I will share some details that should help to explain what the difference is between a Chartered Physiotherapist and a physical therapist.

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