What Is a Physical Therapy Assistant?

Updated September 28, 2022 · 4 Min Read

Are you exploring a career as a physical therapy assistant? Dive into this page to learn what they do, what they make, and how to become one.

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What Is a Physical Therapy Assistant?
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How Long to Become

2 years

Job Outlook

24% growth from 2020-2030

Median Annual Salary

$61,180


Physical therapy assistants, also known as PTAs, help patients recovering from illnesses or injuries regain their mobility and manage pain.

PTAs provide direct patient care under the supervision of physical therapists (PTs). They need physical stamina, compassion, dexterity, and communication skills. PTAs should enjoy helping people.

This guide covers physical therapy assistant duties and responsibilities, workplaces, education and licensure, and salary potential. If you are interested in becoming a physical therapy assistant, start your research into this growth-oriented occupation right here.

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What Does a Physical Therapy Assistant Do?

associate degree required
pta licensure or certification required

PTAs help patients of all ages achieve their goals, whether those goals are employment, independence, regaining strength and fitness, or health and well-being. Their patients may have injuries resulting either from sports, automobile accidents, or long-term illnesses.

Daily tasks may include observing patients and consulting with PTs on care plans. Physical therapy assistants help patients by instructing them in exercises addressing mobility, flexibility, strength, stability, gait and/or performing manual therapy techniques.

While PTAs work under the direction of physical therapists, they interact one-on-one with their patients and develop healing relationships. PTAs may also supervise physical therapist aides.

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Key Responsibilities

  • Assist PTs with care plan implementation
  • Update documentation on patient progress
  • Administer manual therapy and other therapies
  • Demonstrate and help patients with exercise and mobility devices
  • Educate patients and caregivers

Career Traits

  • Physically demanding when assisting patients with mobility such as transfers, gait training, range-of-motion exercises, and performing manual therapy techniques
  • Emotionally demanding when treating patients' pain and stress
  • Requires attention to detail to implement treatment and keep accurate records

Where Do Physical Therapy Assistants Work?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 44% of PTAs work with patients in physical therapists' offices. The next most popular workplaces are hospitals (24%) and skilled nursing facilities (8%).

Here are some common physical therapy assistant duties for popular work settings:

Offices of Physical Therapists

  • Provide patient care 1-on-1 under the direct supervision of PTs
  • Document patient visits, treatment, and progress
  • Follow care plans created by PTs

Hospitals

  • Participate on interdisciplinary teams
  • Provide treatment to patients recovering from disease or injury, restoring functionality, relieving pain, and preventing or limiting permanent physical disabilities
  • Document progress, conduct family training, and accompany PTs on their rounds

Skilled Nursing Facilities

  • Implement short- or long-term physical therapy plans under the direction of a PT
  • Update patient charts
  • Collaborate and coordinate with care team and support departments

How to Become a Physical Therapy Assistant?

To become a PTA, all U.S. states require an associate degree from an accredited program, and licensure or certification. PTAs often earn a two-year associate of science or associate of applied science degrees in physical therapy assistance.

Students should make sure to select programs accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education.

PTA associate degree curriculums include courses and labs in anatomy, biomechanics, exercise physiology, kinesiology, and neuroscience. PTAs must do clinical training under the direct supervision of licensed PTAs, spending an average of 16 hours a week in clinical training.

Graduates apply for their PTA licenses or certification with their state regulatory boards and must pass the National Physical Therapy Exam administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy.

Additional requirements vary by state and may include transcripts, jurisprudence assessments, or criminal background checks. All states require continuing education for licensure renewal, which can range from 10 to 40 hours depending on the jurisdiction.

PTAs can opt to earn additional specialty certifications in basic life support, CPR, and first aid.

Learn more about how to become a physical therapist assistant.

How Much Do Physical Therapy Assistants Make?

The BLS lists the median annual salary for PTAs at $61,180, with a range of $37,280 for the lowest 10% of earners to $80,170 for the top 10%.

Factors that affect PTA wages can include work setting, industry, and geography. For example, BLS numbers from May 2021 show above-average annual wages of $76,600 for PTAs in home healthcare services.

PTAs in California, Rhode Island, and New Jersey earn more than $70,000 per year, which approaches physical therapist salaries in other states. And PTAs in the San Jose area of California fare even better, with average earnings of $85,960.

Future employment looks promising for PTAs. The BLS projects a 26% employment increase for PTAs from 2021-2031, far exceeding the 8% projection for all occupations. An aging population, active baby boomers, and a rise in obesity and diabetes contribute to the ongoing need for PTAs.

Frequently Asked Questions about Physical Therapy Assistants


Is a physical therapy assistant a good career?

A career as a PTA is a solid move considering the projected 26% job growth rate and strong salary potential, fueled by an anticipated need for PT services for an aging population, athletic baby boomers, and those managing illnesses like long COVID and diabetes.

What's the difference between a physical therapy assistant and a physical therapist?

Physical therapists direct and supervise the work of PTAs. Physical therapists evaluate patients, make physical therapy diagnoses, create treatment plans, and provide treatment. PTAs help assist with carrying out the treatment plan created by a physical therapist.

Physical therapists often hold bachelor's degrees in a healthcare field or in recreation and fitness, plus a doctorate in physical therapy. They may specialize in a specific patient population. PTAs assist PTs by implementing care and treatment plans and updating patient records.

What skills are important to becoming a physical therapy assistant?

PTAs need compassion and a desire to help people with temporary or permanent disabilities, who may experience pain and weakness. The job requires physical stamina and dexterity, as PTAs spend hours on their feet helping patients perform exercises, performing manual therapy techniques, and lifting or guiding patients with impaired mobility.

Can you become a physical therapy assistant online?

PTAs can earn their degrees online, but clinical training components often take place in person at clinics, hospitals, and skilled nursing facilities. Students should ensure that their online PTA programs hold accreditation by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education.


Page Last Reviewed: September 1, 2022


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