What Is Physical Therapy?

Physical therapy is a type of care that focuses on pain relief and improving mobility and function of the body. It can be rehabilitative or preventive. 

A deep understanding of human physiology and movement of the body allows physical therapists, often called PTs, to create individualized plans of care and choose specific treatment tools and methods such as hands-on manipulation and exercises. PTs gain that understanding by completing an accredited doctor of physical therapy (DPT) degree program. Graduates must then pass a state licensure exam to begin practicing as a PT.

What Does a Physical Therapist Do?

Practitioners treat patients of many ages with different health conditions. A physical therapist visit typically begins with a comprehensive examination of the patient, including a hands-on assessment of the areas of concern. It is a physical therapist’s duty to listen to their patient’s description of their symptoms. Once a physical therapist has identified the patient’s functionality or mobility issues, they work with that person to create a plan of care and set goals for improvement. Physical therapy objectives include relieving pain, increasing strength, restoring mobility and improving overall wellness.

Why are Physical Therapists important?

Because of their extensive knowledge of the musculoskeletal anatomy and neuroanatomy, physical therapists understand and employ modalities proven to reduce or eliminate pain, restore function, and promote activities and lifestyle changes that heal injury and prevent future harm. Their unique knowledge also complements other branches of rehabilitative medicine. 

What are the types of Physical Therapy Specialties?

DPT programs are typically three-year programs with components of academic and experiential learning. According to the American Physical Therapy Association, DPT degrees are the only type of physical therapy degrees. In addition to on-campus options, there are a number of online physical therapy programs available. Students are not required to choose a specialty; however, there are countless opportunities for specialization for those who have a particular area they’re passionate about or specific group of people they’d like to work with. Patients who need physical therapy range from infants to older adults and professional athletes to patients with permanent paralysis. Some newly licensed PTs start off their careers by participating in a clinical residency or fellowship. Physical therapists often find that their education and post-graduate experiences shape their interest in a specific area of care.

Types of physical therapy specializations include:

  • Geriatric
  • Pediatric
  • Orthopedic
  • Cardiopulmonary
  • Neurological

What is Geriatric Physical Therapy?

Older adults have unique physiology and movement needs. As people age, they may develop ailments and health conditions that cause pain, limit their bodily function and decrease fitness levels. Those conditions include arthritis, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s disease, joint replacement and balance disorders. Geriatric physical therapy is used to treat symptoms of these conditions and improve the overall quality of life for a patient.

Geriatric PTs will often use exercises including but not limited to stretching and aquatic activities to improve a patient’s coordination and flexibility. Physical therapists are responsible for teaching their patients how to exercise outside of office visits, but there may be times when they will have to deliver therapy in a patient’s home. When necessary, geriatric PTs teach patients how to use assistive devices such as walkers to help them carry out daily tasks safely and conveniently. A geriatric PT also uses manual therapy techniques such as massages with their patients.  

What is Pediatric Physical Therapy?

Pediatric physical therapy (PDF, 298 KB) focuses on the unique development and mobility needs of infants, toddlers, children and adolescents. A pediatric physical therapist might treat a child who has developmental delays, cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy, often working closely with the child’s family or caregivers to assess pathology and map out treatment and goals. Treatment techniques for this type of therapy include physical exercises and the use of computers to improve a patient’s memory skills. 

Pediatric physical therapists work most commonly in schools and children’s hospitals and homes, where they make therapeutic use of the child’s natural environment.

What is Orthopedic Physical Therapy?

Orthopedic physical therapy focuses on restoring function to the musculoskeletal system, including joints, tendons, ligaments and bones. For patients suffering from pain or reduced mobility as a result of an injury in the musculoskeletal system, orthopedic physical therapists are key to restoring health. Injury may come from an accident, repeated stress or even surgical manipulation. The treatment process may include strengthening and endurance exercises, the use of heat and ice to reduce pain and inflammation, ultrasounds and electronic stimulation.

What is Cardiopulmonary Physical Therapy?

Cardiovascular or cardiopulmonary physical therapy focuses on rehabilitation for people who have or are recovering from heart disease. This type of physical therapy is also for people with blood circulation and lung problems. If a person is recovering from a heart attack, lives with a chronic breathing illness like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or is at risk for cardiovascular disease, they may want to seek the help of a cardiopulmonary PT. 

Before treatment begins, PTs assess the safety of their patients to perform certain exercises. During the treatment process, PTs carefully monitor a patient’s heart rate to track progress and ensure that the chosen method of physical treatment is safe.

PTs may recommend energy conservation and stress relief techniques to patients who struggle with breathing.

What is Neurological Physical Therapy?

Neurological physical therapy focuses on patients with neurological problems such as spinal cord injuries, strokes, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease, and brain injuries. Flexibility and mobility are often lost to neurological diseases. This type of physical therapy can not only help to increase strength and preserve movement skills and abilities in patients but also restore damage done when possible.

What is the History of Physical Therapy?

Physical therapy techniques have been a part of medicine for centuries: Hippocrates, an ancient Greek physician, practiced manipulation of the body to aid in pain relief.

Per Henrik Ling, the “father of Swedish gymnastics,” founded the Royal Central Institute of Gymnastics for massage, manipulation and exercise in 1813. His techniques were used on gymnasts, making him an early practitioner of prescribed physical therapy and an advocate for recognizing PT as an independent profession.

“Physiotherapy schools” providing lessons in physical therapy were established in the early 1900s in America and New Zealand. Three major tragedies in the 20th century highlighted the need for physical therapy: soldiers recovering from injuries in World War I and World War II, and the paralysis-causing disease polio.

The American Physical Therapy Association was established in the 1950s, and in the second half of the 20th century, physical therapy continued to gain momentum. As patient demand grew, PT moved out of the hospital to other settings, and physical therapy specialties became available, too. In the 21st century, the profession has continued to grow substantially.

Want to Pursue a Career in Physical Therapy?

Employment of physical therapists is expected to grow 22% between 2018 and 2028, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Jobs are available in a variety of settings for those looking to work in this field.

Some of the places where PTs work include:

  • Outpatient clinics or offices
  • Inpatient rehabilitation facilities
  • Skilled nursing, extended care or subacute facilities
  • Patients’ homes
  • Education or research centers
  • Hospice centers
  • Industrial, workplace or other occupational environments
  • Fitness centers and sports training facilities

The path to becoming a physical therapist can vary, depending on factors such as the length of time it takes to complete a DPT program or whether you choose to earn a bachelor’s degree in a related field. However, there are some basic steps you can take to help you enter the profession. Refer to Teach.com’s five common steps for aspiring PTs. You can also learn more about available DPT degree programs by visiting our Online DPT Programs page.