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What does a Physical Therapist do?

By J. Beam
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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A physical therapist’s main job is to help people who have been injured or who are disabled restore physical mobility and joint function through targeted exercise. Most therapists work one-on-one with patients, and typically design stretches and programs specific to the injuries or concerns at issue. They often work in conjunction with hospitals or nursing homes, and are usually considered to be members of the medical or healthcare profession.

Patients usually seek physical therapy for defined reasons. A person who has a broken arm may seek short-term therapy in order to re-teach muscles how to do things like hold a pencil or type on a keyboard, for instance — activities that months in a cast may have hindered. Someone who has had a brain tumor removed or a foot amputated may require longer-term therapy, often spanning several years, in order to learn techniques for coping and building muscular strength. People who have been born with disabilities or physical handicaps may spend most of their lives in physical therapy as well. The day-to-day work of a physical therapist will necessarily depend on the needs of the patient, but the framework is usually the same no matter what.

Developing a Program

One of the most important parts of the job revolves around treatment plans. Therapists will typically meet with patients at least once in an informal, information-only capacity in order to learn more about what needs to be accomplished. This meeting often involves diagnostic stretches and sometimes even a cursory exam so that the therapist can get a sense of exactly what is going on. Review of medical records, charts, and other files often happens at this stage.

Next, the therapist will create a treatment program that starts small but builds on itself over time. The program will typically incorporate different exercises designed to help improve such things as range of motion, endurance, or motor skills. Use of weights and special stretching equipment is common, and massage therapy, traction, and heat or water therapy may also be incorporated in some circumstances. The therapist’s job is to choose the exercises that are best suited for the patient’s condition, then adjust them as needed to meet the end goals.

Helping Execute Exercises

Most physical therapy sessions last for an hour or more. During this time, therapists work directly with patients, first demonstrating the target exercise then monitoring to be sure it is being replicated properly. The therapist may adjust the intensity as required. Most of the time, he or she will also assign “homework” to patients in the form of at-home exercises that will build out of what was learned in the session.


Most physical therapists keep regular office hours, and are not usually on call the way many other medical professionals are. Still, most will give out their phone numbers or other contact information to patients, and may take after-hours calls or arrange emergency sessions as needed — though much of this depends on the specific practitioner.

Work Settings

Generally speaking, a physical therapist works in a hospital, nursing home, or other facility where medical treatment is provided, and usually coordinates care with physicians, nurses, psychologists, and occupational therapists. Therapists who work in hospitals often only provide short-term or intermediate care. People who are just coming out of surgery or who have recently been diagnosed with degenerative conditions are often the mainstay of the patient base in these settings. In nursing homes, veteran’s recovery centers, and rehabilitation clinics, the relationships usually last longer.

An experienced physical therapist may also choose to work independently, often in a private office or as a consultant. Success in this sort of setting usually requires an established patient base, else a means of securing steady referrals; at the same time, though, it often allows much greater flexibility.

Training Requirements

The sort of education and licensing a physical therapist must receive varies by jurisdiction, though the burden is generally quite high. An undergraduate degree is almost universally required, and most places also mandate graduate work to at least the master’s degree level. Graduates must typically pass a licensing or certification exam to begin seeing patients, which may or may not require a certain number of hours of fieldwork. Aspiring therapists often meet these burdens by completing internships or apprenticeships while in school.

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Discussion Comments

By anon144468 — On Jan 19, 2011

Can anyone tell me how would you go about getting your assistant physical therapy licenses, if you only have a bachelors degree in biology?

By yournamehere — On Sep 02, 2010

What exactly is required in physical therapist assistant jobs? I'm thinking of getting into the field, and wanted to know what exactly physical therapist assistants do.

Any feedback would be welcome! Thanks!

By lightning88 — On Sep 02, 2010

Nice article -- I'd just like to add that there are more physical therapist positions than you might think. For instance when most people think of physical therapist jobs, they may only think of people who help patients regain their mobility after accidents, etc.

However, there are a lot of physical therapist careers -- everything from sports physical therapists to pediatric physical therapists.

Many times physical therapist schools and programs will actually allow their students to specialize in one particular area, especially if they know what kind of field they want to practice in later.

So if you're considering becoming a physical therapist, check out some alternative physical therapist job descriptions -- it's not all about accident recovery; physical therapists do much more.

By EarlyForest — On Sep 02, 2010

Can anybody tell me what the physical therapist salary looks like in Denver these days? I recently certified as a physical therapist's assistant, and am thinking of moving into the area.

Any Denver-ites that can help me out?

By anon28150 — On Mar 11, 2009

Most physical therapist have a *minimum* of *six* years of college education before becoming licensed.

Graduates of contemporary Physical Therapy programs receive a Doctorate degree prior to taking their licensing exam.

-Molly L. Arndt, PT, MSPT

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