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Physical Therapy

Physical therapists are charged with treating patients who have mobility problems as a result of accidents or medical conditions. These jobs can be both rewarding and demanding, so professionals must receive quality training in order to handle the rigors of these positions. Online physical therapy degree programs give students the theoretical knowledge and hands-on training they need to tackle the challenges of working with patients.

Physical therapists have a number of job responsibilities, including the following:

  • Reviewing the medical records of patients who have received a physical therapy referral from a primary care physician or surgeon
  • Examining patients in order to make a diagnoses
  • Creating treatment plans that will address patients' injuries, physical limitations and goals
  • Monitoring patients' progress and adjusting treatment plans
  • Educating patients and their families about the physical therapy process
  • Using exercise routines to help patients overcome pain and increase their mobility
  • Testing patients' strength, motor function, respiratory efficiency and sensory perception
  • Working closely with patient's other medical practitioners to create treatment protocols

In order to practice as a physical therapist, professionals must obtain a doctoral degree from a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education. In addition, physical therapists must obtain a license in order to work.

Coursework in Online Physical Therapy Degree Programs

Physical therapists require specialized training in order to provide quality care with the empathy that patients need. Online physical therapy degree programs provide this training and prepare students to deliver patient care based on their state's high standards.

Although schools have their own specific course requirements, there are some classes that can commonly be found in these programs, including the following examples.

Introduction to physical therapy

This class provides information about the basic skills that physical therapists need in order to build their professional knowledge. This is where students first learn the roles and responsibilities of physical therapists, as well as the techniques that are used in the field. Some course topics include range of motion, positioning and draping. In addition, students in this class learn about how physical therapists diagnose patients and thoroughly document the care they provide.


In a pharmacotherapeutics class, students learn about the medications that are commonly prescribed to patients undergoing physical therapy and how those drugs impact rehabilitation. Specific class subjects include drug metabolism, side effects of different medications and what doses are appropriate when a patient is suffering from specific injuries.

Motor control

This course covers the theories related to motor control and how physical therapy can affect a patient's range of motion. In addition, students learn about the different models of motor control and the changes that occur in the body with motor practice.


Students who are interested in working with children can take this course to learn the unique needs of this patient population. Subjects include how to diagnose and treat young children.

Musculoskeletal management

This course familiarizes students with how to treat those with musculoskeletal dysfunction. Coursework covers topics such as rehabilitation techniques for these patients, imaging procedures and diagnosing patients with musculoskeletal injuries.

Professional issues in physical therapy

This course makes students aware of the issues that physical therapists face when they practice patient care, including the impact of politics on the health care industry. In addition, students learn about the specific laws that affect their profession and the ethical principles that health care professionals are expected to follow. Students may participate in role playing exercises in order to demonstrate their understanding of course material.

Additional classes in an online physical therapy degree program may include pathokinesiology, evidence-based research in physical therapy, therapeutic exercise, neuroanatomy, geriatrics and cardiovascular management. When coursework is completed, physical therapy students are required to complete a clinical internship that immerses them into the field. In addition, students may also be required to complete a doctoral project or dissertation.

Interview With a Physical Therapy Professor

Margaret Schenkman is a professor and director of the physical therapy program at the University of Colorado School of Medicine's Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

What are the skills, interests and personality traits necessary for a student to be successful in a physical therapy program?

"We seek to enter students who have a combination of strong interpersonal skills and strong academic preparation in science and humanities. In addition, we seek students with a commitment to working with people in rehabilitation for a variety of conditions. The interpersonal skills are necessary because of the direct relationship that physical therapists have with the patients and other clients with whom they work. The strong academic background, including strong sciences (comparable to the requirements for an MD degree), is necessary because graduates from the Doctor of Physical Therapy Program must be prepared for direct access practice. They need to have strong reasoning skills, ability to incorporate an understanding of basic science into their interpretation of clinical findings and clinical decision making, and an ability to know when to refer and when to treat."

What is the most rewarding part of a career in the physical therapy field? Why should students pursue a career in this field?

"Physical therapists have available a wide range of professional opportunities including direct patient care, clinical management and administration, education, and research. Increasingly, physical therapists are seeking advanced clinical credentialing that allows them to work as clinical specialists. Physical therapists have assumed leadership roles in clinical settings (from owners of physical therapy practices to high level management within health care systems). There are teaching opportunities in physical therapy educational programs. Increasingly, physical therapists have become nationally and internationally recognized scientists, conducting clinical trials that determine parameters for rehabilitation and investigations that set the scientific foundations for new approaches to intervention and/or explain current approaches. They serve on national scientific panels related to a host of conditions (e.g., low back pain, stroke) and on grant review groups such as National Institute of Health (NIH) Study Sections."

What advice would you give to students who are considering earning a degree in physical therapy?

"It is important to understand the scope of the profession, including opportunities and demands, before deciding to embark on a career as a physical therapist. An appreciation for the profession is facilitated by observation, volunteer work or paid work as an aid in a variety of physical therapy settings. It is also important to know the requirements for entry into those DPT programs to which the student is considering applying. Furthermore, it is helpful to recognize that completing the DPT educational program can be demanding and challenging, but that the opportunities for the physical therapist are endless and rewarding."

Career Outlook for Professionals With Physical Therapy Degrees

The physical therapy profession is on the rise, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In fact, between 2014 and 2024, jobs for these workers are projected to increase by 34 percent. There are many factors that are driving this rise in jobs, including that more people have access to health care, the older populations are suffering from illnesses and injuries that affect mobility, and the increased technology for outpatient surgery has necessitated more rehabilitation care.

As of May 2014, the BLS states that physical therapists earn a median annual salary of $82,390. On average, the lowest earners in the field make around $56,800 per year while the highest earners make around $116,090, the agency reports.


Physical Therapists, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, May 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physical-therapists.htm

Physical Therapists, O*NET, http://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/29-1123.00

Physical Therapist, Learn How to Become, http://www.learnhowtobecome.org/physical-therapist/

UW Doctor of Physical Therapy Degree, University of Washington, http://www.physicaltherapy.uw.edu/

Curriculum & Course Descriptions, University of Puget Sound, http://www.pugetsound.edu/academics/departments-and-programs/graduate/school-of-physical-therapy/our-program/curriculum-course-description/

Doctor of Physical Therapy, University of Utah, http://www.health.utah.edu/physical-therapy/degrees/doctor-physical-therapy.php

Physical Therapy, Pacific University, http://www.pacificu.edu/future-graduate-professional/colleges/college-health-professions/areas-study/physical-therapy

Curriculum - SDSU School of Exercise & Nutritional Sciences, San Diego State University, http://ens.sdsu.edu/dpt/prospective/curriculum/

Doctor of Physical Therapy, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, https://www.unlv.edu/degree/dpt

Physical Therapists, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2014, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes291123.htm

Pursue your Physical Therapy Assisting major today…

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