What’s a Physical Therapy Assistant?

Like many other professions in the medical field, the job of physical therapist assistant is expected to grow rapidly in the upcoming decades. Not only is the population aging in general, but also seniors and elderly citizens are encouraged to remain more physically active. The Baby Boomers, for example, are continuing activities such as running, biking, swimming and skiing well into their 60s, something their parents did not do. As such, more Boomers are getting surgeries such as knee replacements, hip replacements and so forth. These types of surgeries, which were once relatively rare but are now being performed with increasing frequency, require a great deal of rehabilitation to get the individual physically independent once again. Furthermore, a number of medical studies in the past few years have revealed that physical therapy is often preferable to surgery. For these reasons, physical therapists and physical therapist assistants are in increasing demand in the medical world.

What is a Physical Therapist Assistant?

A physical therapist is the person who designs a regimen of rehabilitative exercises and stretches for someone who has been injured or is recovering from surgery. The physical therapist assistant works under the main therapist and helps the patient to perform the various exercises and stretches.

Becoming a physical therapist requires a great deal of education, usually including an advanced degree. Becoming a physical therapist assistant, however, only requires an associate degree. During this two-year degree process, the future physical therapist assistant studies physiology, anatomy, psychology and takes basic courses in math and English. The degree is usually divided into time for classroom work and time for field work. During the field work portion of the associate degree, the future assistant works in physical therapy treatment centers and learns basic first-aid.

In the majority of states, a physical therapist assistant also must attain a license in order to work. The license is gained by passing an additional exam after the individual gains an associate degree from an accredited program.

Where Do Physical Therapist Assistants Work?

More than half of all physical therapist assistants work where ambulatory care services are provided. These services are provided in doctors’ offices, in physical therapy offices, in clients’ homes and elsewhere. About a quarter to a third of assistants work in a hospital. The remainder of physical therapist assistants work in a nursing home or other long-term healthcare environment.

For the most part, physical therapist assistants keep regular, 9am to 5pm-type hours and work full-time. When they work, they often wear nursing scrubs or casual clothes so that they can perform the physical therapy exercises alongside the patient. In cases where physical therapy exercises are done in the pool, the assistant may be expected to get into the pool with the patient.

Pros and Cons of Being a Physical Therapist Assistant

Physical therapist assistants have the opportunity to watch their patients progress from a state of severe pain and immobility to once again being physically mobile and independent. For example, a physical therapist assistant may work with someone who had a bad car accident. When the assistant first starts working with the patient, that patient might barely be able to walk. By the time the treatment is complete, the patient may be back to normal. For this reason, being a physical therapist assistant can be an extremely rewarding profession.

Unlike the professions of nursing, home health care and personal aides, physical therapist assistants do not usually have to deal with the more unseemly aspects of healthcare. A physical therapist assistant is unlikely to have to change a diaper or a dressing, for instance, and does not need to administer medication.

Furthermore, considering the relatively small amount of education required, a physical therapist assistant receives a reasonable rate of pay. The median rate of pay is about $37,000 per year. The top 10 percent of physical therapist aides earn a respectable $68,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

However, there is only so far a physical therapist assistant can advance within his or her career. Regardless of how much experience he or she gains, the assistant will always be an assistant. Even in cases when the physical therapist assistant has a great deal more experience than a young physical therapist who has just completed graduate school and has no real-world experience, the assistant still must follow the direction of the physical therapist. This experience can be a frustrating one for a physical therapist assistant who is very skilled in his or her job.

Is Becoming a Physical Therapist Assistant Right for You?

Considering the information provided above, individuals interested in the physical therapy field should question whether they wish to be a physical therapist, a physical therapist assistant or a physical therapist aide. A physical therapist earns the most money and has the most potential for career advancement; however, a physical therapist also requires the most formal schooling. A physical therapist assistant is certainly a respectable position, and the assistant earns a decent wage despite completing only two years of formal education. An assistant, however, will never earn as much as a physical therapist and will always be considered to be a second-tier professional. A physical therapist aide requires the least amount of schooling, usually just a certification, but also earns the least amount of money and has the least opportunity for advancement within the field.

Think about which of these three professions would be ideal for your strengths and your interests. Having done that, enroll in the right educational program for you.