What Is an Orthopedic Physical Therapist?

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on July 10, 2023
2 min read

Orthopedic physical therapists are physical therapists who have received additional training and education in orthopedics. Orthopedics is a branch of medicine that focuses on the musculoskeletal system and injuries to ligaments, tendons, muscles, and bones.

Like general physical therapy, orthopedic physical therapy can help relieve pain and help you function better. Orthopedic physical therapy can also help you recover after orthopedic surgery and help you regain functionality of the operated area(s).

Orthopedic physical therapists treat patients using a variety of methods, including:

  • Strength training
  • Massage
  • Heat or ice application
  • Muscle stimulation
  • Exercise
  • Education
  • Joint mobilization

Orthopedic physical therapists usually work in outpatient rehabilitation settings but may also work in clinics or hospitals or perform home visits.

To become an orthopedic physical therapist, a person must:

  • Earn a doctor in physical therapy degree from an accredited educational institution
  • Pass a state exam to legally practice physical therapy in a specific state
  • Complete a clinical residency or attend a Specialist Certification program

Non-specialized physical therapists can practice elements of orthopedic physical therapy without completing a residency or certification program, but physical therapists who have completed orthopedic specialist programs are considered experts in the field.

Be sure to ask any physical therapist for their credentials before receiving treatment from them.

You should consider seeking out an orthopedic physical therapist to help with the following injuries or conditions: 

  • Arthritis (a condition causing pain and inflammation in a joint)
  • Neck or back pain
  • Work injuries or accidents
  • Sports injuries or accidents
  • Post-orthopedic surgery recoveries
  • Knee conditions
  • Foot and ankle conditions
  • Shoulder conditions
  • Hip conditions
  • Prosthetic training (learning how to use an artificial body part)

Because orthopedic physical therapists focus on functionality, expect to perform physical movement during appointments. Depending on your situation, expect to do strength training and other exercises designed to challenge your body.

An orthopedic physical therapist might also use tools or instruments to help you heal. These tools can include hot and cold treatments, treadmills, ultrasounds, biofeedback (using visual or auditory feedback to improve body functions).

An orthopedic physical therapist will also likely prescribe exercises for you to do at home and educate you on your body and how to move it properly.

When you visit an orthopedic physical therapist, you will receive care to alleviate your pain, understand what causes pain, and work with your therapist to craft a plan to help you heal.