What Does a Physical Therapist Do?

Maura Deering, J.D.
Updated September 29, 2022
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If you're considering a career as a physical therapist, you've come to the right place. Start your research into salaries, specialties, and requirements right here.
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How Long to Become

6-7 years

Job Outlook

17% growth from 2021-2031
Source: BLS

Average Annual Salary

Source: Payscale, September 2022

Physical therapists, also known as PTs, are highly trained healthcare professionals who help people recovering from surgeries, accidents, illnesses, and injuries. PTs help patients regain their mobility, flexibility, strength, balance, and physical independence. Employment opportunities should remain promising as an aging population experiences mobility issues and chronic conditions.

PTs should like working hands on with clients and helping them achieve results. Learn more about education requirements, job duties, and salaries, and explore whether this rewarding and in-demand career is in your future.

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What Does a Physical Therapist Do?

doctor of physical therapy required

Physical therapists work with clients of all ages, including athletes, accident victims, postsurgical patients, and older adults. Patients may be rehabilitating from strokes or heart attacks, conditions like long COVID, and incidents like falls, automobile collisions, or sports injuries.

Typical daily responsibilities include reviewing patient medical histories, assessing client functionality and mobility, and formulating care plans. PTs can also expect to provide patient education and assist patients with exercises, manual therapy, and other therapies to aid movement and manage pain.

closeup of nurse hands on computer keyboard

JGI/Tom Grill / Getty Images

Key Responsibilities

  • Evaluating and making a physical therapy diagnosis
  • Creating care plans to meet goals and expected outcomes
  • Providing hands-on treatment
  • Evaluating patient progress and making modifications as needed

Career Traits

  • Compassion and empathy for patients experiencing pain and discomfort
  • Dexterity to effectively administer manual therapy
  • Resourcefulness to switch gears when necessary
  • Time-management skills to balance client loads and administrative duties

Where Do Physical Therapists Work?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lists physical therapy offices and hospitals as employing 60% of physical therapists. In these settings, they work with patients rehabilitating from a variety of conditions and surgeries. Other workplaces include home healthcare services, private practice, and nursing and residential care facilities.

Private Offices

Physical therapists in private offices may serve on teams of PTs with one employer. Or they may practice as self-employed PTs alone or with other independent PTs. Patients generally have the mobility to come into the office on their own or assisted by a caregiver. Treatment may include manual therapy, gait training, exercise instruction, and patient education.

Patients’ Homes

PTs treat patients in their homes who are experiencing impaired functionality and mobility, making it difficult or impossible to come to an office or facility. They help clients with exercises and therapies that facilitate a return to independent living.

Nursing Homes

PTs in nursing and residential care centers focus on pain management and improved mobility for facility residents. They often help patients use walkers and other devices, along with assisting with transfers, such as lifting and moving them from bed to wheelchair.

How to Become a Physical Therapist?

Physical therapists need a doctor of physical therapy degree from a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education. Becoming a PT usually takes four years of study but can extend to up to eight years. A PT degree requires a four year bachelor’s degree followed by three years of graduate school.

Instruction takes place in the classroom, labs, and through clinical experiences. Coursework focuses on areas that include anatomy, biology, biomechanics, kinesiology, and neuroscience. Some PT program graduates extend their education through residencies or fellowships.

PTs apply for licensure through their state’s physical therapy board, and all states require a passing score on the National Physical Therapy Examination. Additional requirements vary by jurisdiction and may include academic transcripts, jurisprudence assessments, criminal background checks, or professional liability insurance.

The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties offers optional board certification in areas such as those listed below.

Learn more about how to become a physical therapist.

Concentrations and Specializations

Cardiovascular and Pulmonary

This specialty focuses on the rehabilitation of heart and lung conditions, such as heart attacks, open-heart surgery, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

$85,110 (Comparably, September 2022)

Clinical Electrophysiology

Working in this recently established specialty, electrophysiologic PTs help patients recover from nerve and muscle damage caused by wounds or compromised skin integrity.

$75,000 (Payscale, September 2022)


PTs help patients with musculoskeletal conditions and progessive neurological diseases common to older adults, including arthritis, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s.

$84,000 (Payscale, September 2022)

Neurology Nurse

PTs treat clients with nervous system disorders, impairments, and injuries, including Alzheimer’s and head injuries.

$79,000 (Payscale, September 2022)


Patients undergoing treatment or recovering from cancer seek help from oncology PTs, who focus on managing bone density loss, chronic pain, and weakness from chemotherapy and long-term illness.

$75,000 (Payscale, September 2022)


The most popular specialty, orthopedic physical therapy, treats injuries and conditions involving bone, ligaments, joints, muscle, and tendons, along with musculoskeletal disorders.

$78,000 (Payscale, September 2022)


Pediatric PTs treat newborns, infants, children, and teens with physical conditions like acute injuries, postsurgically, and as a result of developmental delays or disabilities, such as cerebral palsy or cystic fibrosis.

$67,610 (Payscale, September 2022)


These professionals help amateur, Olympic-level, and professional athletes who suffer from sports injuries recover and regain their mobility, strength, and performance.

$75,000 (Payscale, September 2022)

How Much Do Physical Therapists Make?

PT salaries average $72,990 per year or $39.67 per hour, according to Payscale as of September 2022. Annual wages range from $61,930 for the lowest 10% of earners to $127,110 for the highest 10%. Pay rates can vary by specialty area, workplace, and geographical location. For example, PTs in Nevada and California make the highest salaries of those in all 50 states.

The BLS projects employment growth for PTs at 17% during 2021-2031, a much faster increase than the 5% average for all occupations. The anticipated openings, according to the BLS, total 15,400 each year as a result of PTs leaving the field or retiring. Increased demand stemming from active baby boomers and a growing number of older adults are also factors.

Frequently Asked Questions about Physical Therapists

question-mark-circleWhat is physical therapy?

Physical therapy encompasses treatments like patient education, manual therapy, and exercises addressing mobility, flexibility, strength, balance, and gait training. PTs help people recover and regain mobility and independence following illness and injury.

question-mark-circleHow long does it take to become a physical therapist?

PTs spend between 4-8 years earning their bachelor’s degree, doctorate, and licensure, which are requirements in all 50 states. The time line varies according to several factors like full- or part-time study, postgraduate residencies or fellowships, and optional certifications.

question-mark-circleWhat’s the difference between a physical therapist and an occupational therapist?

While PTs focus on helping clients recovering from illness or injuries regain mobility and independence, occupational therapists help patients with daily living and working tasks.

question-mark-circleCan physical therapists prescribe medicine?

Only PTs in the Army can prescribe medication. In addition, physical therapy emphasizes drug-free therapies, using movement, manual therapy, and strengthening to help patients recover and manage pain.

Page last reviewed September 1, 2022

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