Physical Therapist (PT) Careers Overview

Patients/clients and physicians are demanding the talents of physical therapists for management of a wide variety of conditions. In many cases, patients are being sent to physical therapy instead of surgery, and they highly value the individualized, "hands on" approach that characterizes physical therapist care. When a physical therapist sees a patient/client for the first time, he or she examines that individual and develops a plan of care that promotes the ability to move, reduces pain, restores function, and prevents disability. The physical therapist and the patient/client then work side-by-side to make sure that the goals of the plan or care are met.

Therapeutic exercise and functional training are the cornerstones of physical therapist treatment. Depending on the particular needs of a patient/client, physical therapists may "manipulate" a joint (that is, perform certain types of passive movements at the end of the individual's range of motion) or massage a muscle to promote proper movement and function. Physical therapists may use other techniques such as electrotherapy, ultrasound (high-frequency waves that produce heat), hot packs, and ice in addition to other treatments when appropriate. Physical therapists also will work with individuals to prevent loss of mobility by developing fitness- and wellness-oriented programs for healthier and more active lifestyles.

Practice Settings

Although many physical therapists practice in hospitals, more than 80% practice in other settings.

Acute Care - In this setting, physical therapy is provided to individuals who are admitted to a hospital for short-term patient care for reasons such as illness, surgery, accident, or recovery from a trauma. The goal in this setting is to discharge the person as soon as he or she is medically stable and has a safe place to go.

Rehab/Subacute Rehab 

  • Rehabilitation Hospital - In this setting, physical therapy is provided to individuals who are admitted to a facility or rehabilitation unit. The goal is this setting is to provide intense therapy to improve the person's ability to care for himself or herself (typically 3 hours or more per day).
  • Sub-Acute Rehabilitation - In this setting, physical therapy is provided to individuals who are admitted to a special hospital that provides medical and/or rehabilitation care. The rehabilitation is less intense (typically less than 3 hours per day).

Extended Care Facility /Nursing Home/Skilled Nursing Facility - In this setting, physical therapy is provided to individuals who are admitted to a facility that typically cares for elderly patients and provides long-term nursing care, rehabilitation, and other services.

Outpatient Clinic (also known as a Private Practice) - In this common physical therapy setting, individuals visit a physical therapist in a clinic, office, or other health care facility primarily to address musculoskeletal (orthopedic) and neuromuscular injuries or impairments.

School/Preschool - In this setting, physical therapy is provided within an educational environment, including preschool, elementary, or secondary education (high school and vocational) facilities.

Wellness/Prevention/Sports/Fitness - In this setting, physical therapy is provided to individuals with a focus on wellness. This approach to health care emphasizes preventing illness and injury and promoting a healthy lifestyle, as opposed to emphasizing treatment of diseases. Settings may include but aren't limited to fitness centers and sports training facilities.

Home Health - In this setting, physical therapy is provided in the patient's place of residence. While the majority of patients are senior citizens, there also are pediatric patients with developmental disabilities and other conditions, and individuals of all ages who need rehabilitation because of injury or other causes. Home care may actually be provided in the patient's residence, the caregiver's home, a hospital emergency room, skilled nursing facility, residential facility, group home, hospice, or elsewhere in the community.

Hospice - In this setting, physical therapy is provided to patients in the last phases of incurable disease so that they may maintain functional abilities for as long as possible and manage pain.

Industrial, Workplace, or Other Occupational Environments - In these settings, physical therapy is provided to individuals primarily to help them return to work or for the purpose of enhancing employee health, improving safety, and increasing productivity in the workplace.

Local, State, and Federal Government - In these settings, physical therapy is provided to civilians and military personnel. PTs are employed by federal agencies, including the Veteran's Health Administration (VHA), Department of Defense, and Indian Health Service (IHS).

Research Center - In this setting, physical therapists and other professionals conduct research to improve patient/client care outcomes and support the body of knowledge in the field physical therapy.

Some of the Conditions Treated by Physical Therapists

  • Arthritis
  • Back Pain
  • Balance
  • Burns
  • Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
  • Developmental Delays
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
  • Dislocations
  • Fractures
  • Hand Injuries
  • Headaches
  • Incontinence
  • Lymphedema
  • Osteoporosis
  • Pelvic Pain
  • Sports Injuries
  • Stroke
  • Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)

Job Satisfaction

Forbes ranked physical therapists as having one of "The Ten Happiest Jobs," according to an article published in 2011. Physical therapists also report one of the highest job-satisfaction levels in the country according to a National Opinion Research Center survey, chronicled in an April 17, 2007 article of the Chicago Tribune in which more than three-quarters of physical therapists polled reporting to be "very satisfied" with their occupations. PTs were second only to clergy, and were the only health care professionals in the top 5.

Job Outlook

US News & World Report has repeatedly included physical therapists among it's best 100 jobs in terms of employment opportunity, good salary, manageable work-life balance, and job security:  2013 (#8), 2012, and 2009. also included physical therapists among its list of the top 10 "Fastest Growing Jobs" in November 2012 and ranked the profession #4 out of 100 "Best Jobs in America" in 2010.

There is a high demand for physical therapists in the workforce. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of physical therapists is expected to grow by 39 percent from 2010 to 2020, much faster than the average for all occupations. According to APTA, with just a 0.2 percent unemployment rate, physical therapists are now experiencing the best employment conditions since enactment of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997. The need for PTs is expected to increase into the foreseeable future as the U.S. population ages and the demand for physical therapy services grows.


More than 198,000 physical therapists are licensed in the U.S. today. The median salary for a physical therapist is $80,000 depending on position, years of experience, degree of education, geographic location, and practice setting. (Source: APTA 2010 Median Income of Physical Therapists Summary Report.)


After graduation from an accredited physical therapy education program* candidates must pass a state-administered national exam. Other requirements for physical therapy practice vary from state to state according to physical therapy practice acts or state regulations governing physical therapy. Visit the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT) Web site for more information about PT licensure requirements.

*The Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) is the only accrediting agency recognized by the US Department of Education for PT education programs.

PT Specialties

Physical therapists have the opportunity to become certified as clinical specialists through the American Board of Physical Therapy (ABPTS). Specialization is the process by which a physical therapist builds on a broad base of professional education and practice to develop a greater depth of knowledge and skills related to a particular area of practice. Specialty certification is voluntary. PTs are not required to be certified in order to practice in a specific area.

  • Cardiovascular & Pulmonary
  • Clinical Electrophysiology
  • Geriatrics
  • Neurology
  • Orthopaedics
  • Pediatrics
  • Sports Physical Therapy
  • Women's Health

Future of Physical Therapy

Learn about Vision 2020, APTA's plan for the future of the physical therapy profession.

Additional Resources

Blank 124x100