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How to Become a Physical Therapist Assistant

Updated September 28, 2022 · 5 Min Read

Learn how to become a physical therapist assistant with the potential to earn more than $60,000 a year with a two-year associate degree.

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How to Become a Physical Therapist Assistant
Credit: Phynart Studio | E+ | Getty Images

How Long to Become

2 years

Degree Required

Associate Degree

Certification

Physical Training Assistant Licensure
(Required)


Physical therapy has become a critical part of patient care and recovery for patients of all ages with many different conditions. Physical therapy helps those recovering from an injury or surgery and people living with chronic conditions that affect their mobility. It builds patients' strength, keeps them staying active, and allows them to better manage their conditions.

Physical therapy assistants (PTAs) help patients on their road to recovery. Find out how to become a physical therapist assistant, including the education and licensure requirements, and gain insight into what it's like to work in this field.

What Is a Physical Therapist Assistant?

Physical therapy assistants are licensed professionals who work under the supervision of a physical therapist. They help patients perform exercises prescribed by their therapist and educate patients on how to use mobility aids like walkers and crutches. They also provide hands-on care, performing manual techniques and assistance with stretches. They put their knowledge of anatomy, physiology, and kinesiology to work while working with patients during their sessions.

Most physical therapy assistants work in hospitals or physical therapy practices. They collaborate with the physical therapist to ensure the highest level of care, recording data that can be used in decisions to modify treatment plans.

Because most of the patients they work with are in pain, PTAs need to be empathetic and encouraging. In many ways, physical therapy assistants are coaches and need to keep their patients motivated and on track with their recovery.

Steps to Becoming a Physical Therapist Assistant

You need an associate degree to become a physical therapist assistant; admission requires either a high school diploma or GED certificate. Taking courses in biology, anatomy and physiology, chemistry, math, and writing can help prepare you for college coursework.

Accredited physical therapy assistant programs are typically two-year associate degree programs that include both classroom and hands-on clinical training. Choosing a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) ensures the quality of the program and your eligibility for licensure.

Expect coursework covering anatomy and physiology, exercise physiology, biomechanics, kinesiology, neuroscience, and behavioral science.

After completing a physical therapist assistant program, you are eligible to take the National Physical Therapist Exam (NPTE), a standardized test to demonstrate your competence and knowledge of physical therapy. Passing the test makes you eligible for a physical therapy assistant license.

Some states have additional requirements. For example, 28 states also require licensing candidates to pass a jurisprudence exam covering state-specific laws and regulations.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that demand for physical therapy assistants is projected to increase at a faster than average rate by 2031. Jobs are typically available at hospitals, inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation centers, and private practices. Schools and skilled nursing facilities also hire physical therapy assistants.

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Physical Therapist Assistant Education

Becoming a physical therapist assistant only requires earning an associate degree. Very few people use this role as a stepping stone to a career as a physical therapist, which requires a bachelor's degree and a doctor of physical therapy.

It is possible to have a satisfying and well-paying career as a physical therapist assistant with a two-year degree, but some assistants seek additional knowledge and experience through the Advanced Proficiency Pathways program. Completing this program can potentially lead to additional opportunities and higher pay.

Associate Degree

Associate degree programs for physical therapy assistants prepare students with the skills and knowledge they need to pass the NPTE as well as provide quality care to patients. Programs combine classroom time and hands-on training in a lab and supervised practice.

High school diploma or GED certificate; competitive GPA; volunteer experience (preferably in a physical therapy clinic); letters of recommendation

Coursework in anatomy and physiology, exercise science and kinesiology, biomechanics, psychology and behavioral science, and professional practice standards; hands-on training in a lab and clinical training under the supervision of a licensed physical therapist

Two years

Patient communication; recording and interpreting patient data; therapeutic exercise; treatment techniques like stretching and manual therapy; proper use of equipment; exercise modifications; infection control

Physical Therapist Assistant Licensure and Certification

Every state requires PTAs to have a license to practice. Specific state requirements vary, but every state requires candidates to complete an accredited education program and pass the NPTE. Additional requirements may include passing the state jurisprudence exam to demonstrate knowledge of state-specific laws, submitting transcripts, passing a criminal background check, and securing professional liability insurance.

Employers (and some states) might require physical therapist assistants to have current, valid certification in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and basic life support. Licenses have to be renewed regularly. Most states require continuing education to renew a license.

Physical therapy assistants can also choose to complete the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) Advanced Proficiency Pathways program. Through additional coursework, mentors, and clinical experience, this program demonstrates advanced knowledge in a particular specialty, such as neurology, pediatrics, geriatrics, wound care, and oncology.

Working as a Physical Therapist Assistant

Many recent graduates from PTA programs can find jobs in the facilities where they complete an internship or a clinical experience. The BLS projects the overall employment of physical therapy assistants to grow by 24% between 2021 and 2031, which is much faster than average. The growth is attributed to increased demand for physical therapy caused by factors like retiring PTAs and people moving into other careers.

Most physical therapy assistants work in private practices or hospitals; together they account for almost 70% of jobs. The median annual physical therapist assistant salary is $61,180 or $29.42 an hour. Physical therapy assistants working in home healthcare earn the most, with a median annual salary of $76,600.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Physical Therapist Assistant


How many years does it take to become a physical therapist assistant?

With full-time study, you can qualify for licensure as a physical therapist assistant in two years. If you choose to complete the Advanced Proficiency Pathways program, plan on 1-2 years of additional study and practice.

How can you tell if a physical therapist assistant program is accredited?

Programs accredited by CAPTE will indicate their status on their website and in student recruitment materials. You can find a full list of accredited physical therapy assistant programs in the program directory on the CAPTE website.

How hard is it to become a physical therapist assistant?

Studying to become a physical therapy assistant requires periods of intense study. Certain courses, like anatomy and physiology, are known to be challenging for many students. With dedication, commitment, good time management, and communication with your instructors, the coursework is manageable.

What degree is required to become a physical therapist assistant?

To become a physical therapist assistant, you need an associate degree from an accredited physical therapy assistant program. These programs award an associate of applied science degree. After completing your degree, you may choose a specialty by completing APTA's Advanced Proficiency Pathways program.


Page last reviewed September 1, 2022


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