Physical therapy is the assessment, evaluation, treatment and prevention of physical limitations, movement dysfunctions and pain resulting from injury, disease or disability. Rather than relying on the use of surgery, radiation, or medicines, physical therapy uses the therapeutic properties of exercise, heat, cold, water, electricity, ultrasound, massage and education to strengthen muscles, improve mobility, increase endurance and stability, and relieve pain.
The Work: Physical therapists test and evaluate patients and then plan, provide and monitor customized physical therapy treatment programs. Patients are typically those who have experienced a stroke; some form of head trauma; paralysis; serious arthritis and other, painful, joint immobility problems; burns; or coronary heart disease. Physical therapists may be generalists or specialize in orthopedics, pediatrics, sports, cardiopulmonary, geriatric or neurology. Most physical therapists work 40-hour weeks, although more than 20 percent choose to work part-time.
The Work Setting: About two-thirds of physical therapists work in hospitals or in offices of physical therapy. Others work in medical clinics, physician offices, nursing homes, colleges and universities, community health centers, and for home health agencies.
Entry Into Field: A license to practice physical therapy is required in all 50 states. A license requires a master's degree from an accredited physical therapy program (which typically takes about 2.5 years), passing the National Physical Therapist Examination (NPTE), and meeting any additional requirements of the licensing board in the state of practice.
Education: There are 205 accredited physical therapy programs in the United States. Of these, 94 offer master's degrees and 111 offer doctoral degrees. Virginia has five accredited programs (Hampton University, Marymount University, Old Dominion University, Shenandoah University and Virginia Commonwealth University).
Courses generally include human anatomy and physiology, neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, biomechanics of motion, human growth and development, manifestations of disease and trauma, biology, physics, chemistry, psychology, sociology, tests and measurements, clinical medicine, therapeutic exercise, assistive devices, and physical agents.
Admission to physical therapy programs is competitive. All programs require a bachelor's degree. Other admission requirements vary, but generally one should have at least a 3.3 grade point average, have considerable work or volunteer experience as a physical therapy aide (some schools require up to 150 hours of clinical experience prior to admission), have positive letters of reference and have a satisfactory score on the GRE.
The Career: The median salary for physical therapists in 2004 was approximately $60,000, depending on position, years of experience, educational degree and practice setting. Experienced, self-employed physical therapists working full-time can earn up to $100,000 annually. Though the number of schools has escalated in recent years, physical therapy is still described as a high-growth field for the future.
Job Outlook: Excellent. Employment of physical therapists is expected to grow much faster than the average for all occupations through 2014.
Web sites of Interest:
American Physical Therapy Association
All Allied Health Schools
U.S. Department of Labor
PT Schools in the Region:
Old Dominion University
Virginia Commonwealth University
District of Columbia:
George Washington University
University of Maryland-Baltimore
University of Maryland-Eastern Shore
St. Francis University
Slippery Rock University
Thomas Jefferson University
University of Pittsburgh
University of Scranton
University of Sciences
East Carolina University
University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
Western Carolina University
Winston-Salem State University
Medical University of South Carolina
University of South Carolina-Columbia
East Tennessee State University
Tennessee State University
University of Tennessee-Chattanooga
University of Tennessee Health Science Center
West Virginia University
Wheeling Jesuit University