How to Become a Physical Therapy Assistant

Overview

Reviewed By Katherine Rush, PT
Technician helping a patient with an exercise

Physical therapy assistants (PTAs) provide invaluable services to patients experiencing physical discomfort. Working under the supervision of licensed physical therapists, PTAs use massage, heat treatment, exercise and other non-invasive means to treat disease, injury and deformity.

PTAs use their knowledge of anatomy and physiology – especially the musculoskeletal and nervous systems – to carry out treatment plans prescribed by physical therapists. They may be training a patient to walk with crutches or a walker; assisting with the correct technique in completing an exercise program; using modalities such as heat, ultrasound or electrical stimulation to decrease pain; teaching aquatics exercises; or instructing a patient and family in safety techniques for home.

There is immense personal satisfaction that results from reducing physical suffering and pain and improving the functional mobility of the patients they serve. PTAs are able to significantly improve the lives of those suffering from pain and disability.

Work Environment

Physical therapy is performed in a variety of different work environments including hospitals, clinics, medical offices, schools and rehabilitation centers. The hours can vary significantly depending on the setting. In a school setting, you will typically have the same schedule as a teacher. If you work in an outpatient clinic, the hours are normal office hours. If, however, you are in a hospital or in a home health setting, you may be required to work rotating weekends and holidays.  The sports and entertainment industries frequently hire specialized physical therapist assistants as staff to travel with teams and accompany the athletes and entertainers to performance venues. Certification and specialization is a prerequisite for these exceptional job opportunities.

Requirements

Education

A physical therapy assistant must have an associate’s degree to work in this field. An Associate of Physical Therapy Assistant degree involves a two-year program that incorporates classroom learning with clinical experience. Students take academic courses in algebra, anatomy, physiology, English and psychology. Early on, students gain hands-on experience by shadowing physical therapists and other PTAs. By the end of the program, students work under the close supervision of trained mentors.

The Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) oversees and certifies schools that can train future physical therapist assistants; CAPTE maintains a list of accredited physical therapy programs in the United States. It is very important to attend an accredited institution to avoid future licensure problems.

Training

After receiving the physical therapist assistant degree, and passing the NPTE, most assistants are ready to look for their first job. However, some assistants will choose to look for an internship with a physical therapy facility to provide further experience in the field. Working internships prepare job seekers to understand better the nature of the work. The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) website provides information on the specifics of how to interview for and land an internship.

Licensing and/or Certifications

Passing the National Physical Therapy Licensing Examination is required in most states in order to practice. The physical therapist assistant test (PTA NPTE) is 150 questions and lasts 3.5 hours. Register with the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT) to take the licensing examination.

Necessary Skills and Qualities

Those aspiring to be physical therapy assistants should show a strong aptitude for science and physical education. Maintaining good physical condition is critical for handling long hours of standing and assisting patients. PTAs should also have a friendly manner and relaxed attitude and should be comfortable working with people of all ages.

Opportunities for Advancement

Many PTAs continue their studies to obtain a master's or doctorate degree so as to work as a physical therapist. The years of experience obtained as an assistant may help to gain acceptance into a physical therapy program. PTAs can also advance in administrative positions, particularly in larger facilities.

If you would like to gain the necessary education to become a physical therapy technician, we highly recommend that you check out our free School Finder Tool located HERE.

Salary and Job Outlook

Interactive Map of Income and Job Growth Projections

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According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, physical therapist assistant salaries range from $31,840 - $75,530 per year. The median salary is $54,410. Specific salaries depend on the individual's qualifications, education and experience, as well as geographic location and size of the hiring facility.

Job prospects for physical therapist assistants are excellent. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the growth projection for this career is 41% from 2012-2022, a much faster than average rate. The fact that the population is aging rapidly makes it likely that PTAs will be needed for years to come.

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