What Is a Physical Therapist?

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on March 02, 2023
3 min read

A physical therapist (PT) is a health specialist who evaluates and treats human body disorders. They may help you manage illnesses or injuries to your:

  • Musculoskeletal system (bones and muscles)
  • Neurological systems (brain)
  • Cardiopulmonary system (heart and lungs)
  • Integumentary system (skin)

Physical therapists help people of all ages and at different life stages. Some people visit a physical therapist for advice on becoming healthier and how to prevent future problems from occurring.  

Effective communication and problem-solving skills are needed for success in this field. You can find physical therapists at:

  • Hospitals
  • Long-term care facilities
  • Athletics facilities
  • Schools
  • Clinics  

Physical therapists typically receive referrals from doctors and other professionals. They usually start by performing a physical examination to gain a better understanding of your issue. From there, they may use a combination of the following as part of your treatment plan:

  • Exercising
  • Stretching
  • Using different equipment
  • Other hands-on techniques

The goal is to restore functionality by improving movement and increasing motion range in specific body areas. Continuous physical therapy treatment can reduce your current or future need for prescription drugs or surgery — or more physical therapy. 

Everyday tasks of physical therapists include:

  • Diagnosing your condition and ability to function by observing you standing, walking around, and performing tasks
  • Listening to your concerns
  • Developing an individualized care plan built around their observations of your condition, the goals you want to achieve, and your expected outcomes
  • Using therapeutic aids, such as electrical stimulation machines or kinesthetic tape 
  • Documenting your progress
  • Assisting you in using supportive devices like a crutch or cane
  • Creating and executing plans to discharge you from care when appropriate

Physical therapists can specialize in different focus areas, including:

  • Oncology (Cancer)
  • Cardiovascular (heart) and pulmonology (lungs)
  • Geriatrics (elderly health)
  • Orthopedics (bone, joint, and spinal issues)
  • Neurology (brain health)
  • Sports
  • Clinical electrophysiology
  • Pediatrics (children’s health)

Physical therapists perform most job functions while on their feet. They rely on using their bodies to perform tasks like lifting you, moving you around, and manipulating your movements. The ability to make one-on-one connections and motivate people are skills physical therapists rely on to help you progress. 

Physical therapists who practice in the United States must earn a doctor of physical therapy (DPT) degree from a program accredited (approved) by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education. They must also pass a state licensing exam. 

Most DPT programs take around three years to complete. People enrolled in a DPT program usually gain understanding and knowledge in areas like:

  • Biology
  • Anatomy
  • Cellular histology
  • Physiology
  • Exercise physiology
  • Biomechanics
  • Kinesiology
  • Neuroscience
  • Pathology
  • Pharmacology
  • Behavioral sciences
  • Management sciences
  • Communication
  • Sociology
  • Finance
  • Clinical reasoning
  • Ethics/Values
  • Evidence-based practice
  • Endocrine and metabolic functions
  • Musculoskeletal systems

Many DPT programs require students to have a bachelor’s degree before admission. Some allow students to take part in a 3 + 3 program format. That means they spend three years taking undergraduate courses focused on physical therapy, then advance to a three-year professional DPT program. 

Another option is to find a DPT program that allows high school graduates direct entry into a guaranteed admissions program. They gain admission into a professional DPT program upon completion of undergraduate requirements. 

Around 80% of the curriculum at most DPT programs involves classroom work and lab study. The other 20% focuses on clinical education. PT students typically spend 27 weeks completing their final clinical experience. 

Licensed physical therapists can choose to gain more knowledge and experience by participating in a clinical residency or clinical fellowship program. Residencies provide the opportunity to gain experience in a defined practice area. Clinical fellowships are structured programs for physical therapists who show clinical expertise in focused practice areas. 

The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties offers physical therapists the chance to become board-certified clinical specialists. There’s no requirement for certification in a specific practice area.     

Your doctor might refer you to a physical therapist if you have an illness or injury that limits your physical functional ability. They may also send you to a physical therapist if you’re recovering from surgery or conditions like:

The time needed for physical therapy depends on your condition and goals. A physical therapist typically coordinates with your referring doctor to ensure they agree on a recommended treatment plan. You may need approval from a physical therapist before resuming certain activities.