Physical Therapy Majors Guide

What Does it Mean to Study Physical Therapy?

Originally developed as a treatment for wounded soldiers in World War I, the educational and career opportunities for students interested in physical therapy have expanded since that time. Physical therapists team up with doctors and counselors in order to rehabilitate patients with physical injuries, diseases, limitations, and impairments. They develop exercise schedules and may use heat, cold, electricity, sound and/or water technologies to relieve pain and stimulate muscles. Most commonly, physical therapists focus on rehabilitation stemming from injuries, but they may also specialize in sports therapy, orthopedics or pediatrics.

Types of Physical Therapy Degrees

An advanced healthcare degree from an accredited institution is required in order to practice as a physical therapist. Professionals in this field rely heavily upon biological, anatomical and procedural knowledge of rehabilitation and exercise science. A good degree program, whether online or on-campus, combines theoretical knowledge with hands-on experience (often arranged locally for distance learning students).

In most cases, physical therapy programs are offered at the graduate level, meaning that students generally cannot enroll without a bachelor’s degree. However, students can obtain positions as physical therapist assistants with an associate degree. This can be a way to test whether a career is a good fit.

Online Degrees

Online degree programs in physical therapy offer many opportunities to engage in intensive academic study. By taking courses online, partaking in virtual training, and engaging with professors and classmates all over the world, physical therapy students obtain a thorough, technologically advanced education. Additionally, online students are able to pursue an education without relocating in order to be closer to a physical campus. Online physical therapy degree programs enable students to fuse advanced anatomical and medical knowledge with the practical, intense training that is necessary for achieving success in this field. Whether you’re new to the field and seeking physical therapy assistant training, or are an assistant ready to earn a master’s degree, online degrees are an increasingly accepted choice.

Online college degree programs require students to participate in online tutorials, web seminars, and interactive training laboratory projects. Physical therapy students who participate in online degree programs have the opportunity to tailor their own schedules and courseloads to coexist with existing family and career commitments, and to arrange hands-on training at local facilities.

Associate Degrees and Physical Therapist Assistant Training

An associate degree (AAS) in physical therapy or a physical therapist assistant training program is often earned by students looking to serve as clinical assistants for certified physical therapists. Typically one- or two-year programs, these degrees and diplomas focus on assistant roles and do not count toward advanced degrees. Assistant training programs focus on technical training, anatomy, and physical therapy courses; associate degrees add general education requirements to the mix.

Master’s Degrees

In many cases it takes a minimum of six years to earn a master’s degree in physical therapy, and master’s degree programs are often divided into two required sections. The first part is essentially a traditional undergraduate program that takes approximately three years to finish. The second part generally focuses on practical experience and training. The knowledge and skills obtained in the first portion of their studies can be built upon and developed in upper-division courses, helping students learn about and innovate upon the creation of treatment plans for patients.

What Can You Do With a College Degree in Physical Therapy?

Physical Therapist Assistants (PTA)

A physical therapist assistant (PTA) helps the physical therapist provide treatment. S/he also performs intervention procedures as directed by the supervising therapist. S/he works with patients who have arthritis, back and neck injuries, sprains and fractures, burns, amputations, birth defects, injuries related to work and sports, and related problems. Licensure is not required in most states for the physical therapist assistant to practice; the states that do require licensure specify particular academic and examination criteria.

Physical Therapists (PT)

The physical therapist’s goal is to repair or prevent physical problems resulting from injury, disease, and other causes. The best treatment plans encourage patients to enhance their own muscle strength and flexibility, in hopes of eventually increasing a patient’s ability to function independently. Physical therapists also teach patients how to use medical equipment, such as prosthetic devices and wheelchairs. Licensure is required in all U.S. states to be a practicing physical therapist, and all physical therapists must pass an exam that tests their knowledge and skill.


Chiropractors evaluate and treat patients who have problems with their muscular, nervous, and skeletal systems, particularly the spine. Chiropractors believe that medically interfering with these systems harms the body’s ability to function normally, resulting in lower resistance to injury and disease. Chiropractors use holistic, non-surgical health treatments that encourage the body’s innate ability to heal and recuperate. They may also make suggestions for how patients can improve their lifestyle, diet, exercise and sleeping patterns.

Recreational Therapists

Recreational therapists rely on crafts, sports, games, dance and movement, drama, music, and community outings to enhance the physical and psychological health of their patients. They also work with individuals to reduce depression, stress, and anxiety, and to build personal confidence, so that patients can socialize appropriately and enjoy greater independence. It is also common for recreational therapists to assist patients with disabilities as they integrate into community living.

Physical Therapy Certification, Licensure and Associations

After graduating from an accredited physical therapy degree program, a student must pass the National Physical Therapist Examination (NPTE) in order to go into clinical practice as a physical therapist. Other state-level certifications are often required as well.

Additionally, students should note that the physical therapy exam is only one part of the certification process. Depending on where you intend to work, the NPTE physical therapy examination can be coupled with other methods of assessing your ability to properly administer physical therapy. Once these requirements have been satisfied, you must also investigate additional requirements that your state’s licensing board may have before you are admitted to work in a particular state.

Physical Therapy Associations and Certification Bodies

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