Overview of Physical Therapists

A physical therapist, also called a registered physical therapist, is a licensed health care provider who evaluates and conducts physical therapy for patients who have medical conditions that cause pain and/or limit movement and function. Physical therapists (PTs) use exercise and other physical means (e.g., heat, cold, massage, electrical stimulation, ultrasound) to strengthen muscles, improve circulation and motion, and help patients regain the ability to perform daily activities (e.g., dressing, eating, bathing).

Physical therapists also develop programs that promote healthy and active lifestyles. They often work with other health care providers, including physicians, nurses, social workers, occupational therapists, and speech and hearing specialists.

Physical Therapist Education and Training

Physical therapists must have a master's degree or doctorate from a physical therapist education program. They then must be licensed in the state in which they wish to practice. To remain licensed, physical therapists often are required to take continuing medical education (CME) courses and attend workshops. Education and training includes classes in the following:

  • Biology
  • Biomechanics
  • Chemistry
  • Examination techniques and methods
  • Human growth and development
  • Neuro-anatomy
  • Physics
  • Therapy procedures

Some physical therapists treat a variety of conditions and others specialize in areas such as pediatrics, geriatrics, orthopedics, sports medicine, neurology, and cardiopulmonary physical therapy.

Physical therapist assistants work under the supervision of a physical therapist. They conduct therapy (e.g., exercise, massage, electrical stimulation, ultrasound), record the patient's responses, and report to the physical therapist.

Types of Physical Therapy Treatments

Physical therapists use a number of treatment methods. Exercise, massage, and joint manipulation can be used to reduce pain, and improve flexibility, strength, motor control, and range of motion. Other types of treatment used to reduce pain and swelling include heat/cold therapy (e.g., cryotherapy), traction, electrical stimulation (e.g., TENS units, iontophoresis), and ultrasound. In addition, some physical therapists use cold (low-level) laser therapy to reduce pain and inflammation.

Physical therapists also teach patients how to use devices such as crutches, walkers, wheelchairs, and prostheses properly, and how to perform exercises correctly at home.

Publication Review By: Elizabeth Isa Herrera, MSPT, CSCS

Published: 30 May 2007

Last Modified: 22 Jul 2015