What is a Physical Therapist?

A physical therapist specializes in evaluating, diagnosing, and treating patients with physical limitations or impairments. They help individuals regain function, reduce pain, and improve their overall physical well-being.

Physical therapists work with patients of all ages and diverse medical conditions, ranging from athletes recovering from sports injuries to elderly individuals dealing with age-related mobility issues. They utilize various techniques and modalities, such as therapeutic exercises, manual therapy, heat or cold therapy, electrical stimulation, and ultrasound, to design individualized treatment plans that address each patient's unique needs and goals. Physical therapists also educate patients on injury prevention, proper body mechanics, and exercises they can do at home to continue their progress. Their expertise in restoring physical function and mobility enables patients to enhance their quality of life and regain independence.

What does a Physical Therapist do?

A physical therapist showing a patient how to use elastic bands for leg exercises.

Physical therapists help individuals regain their physical abilities, mobility, and overall quality of life after injury, illness, or surgery. Their work also extends beyond patient care as they collaborate with other healthcare professionals to improve patient outcomes and advocate for policies that promote healthy living and physical activity.

Duties and Responsibilities
Here are some of the duties and responsibilities of physical therapists:

  • Conducting patient evaluations: Physical therapists evaluate patients to determine their range of motion, strength, endurance, and balance. They use a variety of assessments and tests to identify the underlying causes of the patient's physical impairments.
  • Developing treatment plans: Based on the evaluation, physical therapists develop individualized treatment plans that may include exercises, manual therapy, modalities (e.g., heat, cold, electrical stimulation), and assistive devices (e.g., crutches, walkers). They also consider the patient's age, medical history, and lifestyle in designing the treatment plan.
  • Providing hands-on therapy: Physical therapists use various manual techniques, such as massage, stretching, and joint mobilization, to help patients improve their mobility, reduce pain, and increase strength.
  • Teaching exercises: Physical therapists teach patients how to perform exercises that target specific muscle groups, improve balance, and increase endurance. They also provide guidance on how to perform exercises safely and effectively.
  • Monitoring progress: Physical therapists monitor their patients' progress and adjust treatment plans as necessary. They may use objective measures, such as range of motion or strength testing, to track improvement over time.
  • Educating patients: Physical therapists educate patients on injury prevention, self-care, and lifestyle modifications to improve overall health and wellbeing.
  • Collaborating with other healthcare professionals: Physical therapists often work as part of a healthcare team, collaborating with physicians, nurses, occupational therapists, and other professionals to ensure the best possible care for their patients.

Types of Physical Therapists
There are several types of physical therapists, each with different areas of specialization. Some common types of physical therapists include:

  • Hand Therapists: Hand therapists are specialized occupational or physical therapists who focus on the rehabilitation of individuals with hand and upper extremity conditions.
  • Orthopedic Physical Therapists: Orthopedic physical therapists specialize in treating injuries and conditions affecting the musculoskeletal system, such as fractures, sprains, strains, and arthritis.
  • Neurological Physical Therapists: Neurological physical therapists work with patients who have neurological disorders such as Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, or a stroke.
  • Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Physical Therapists: Cardiovascular and pulmonary physical therapists focus on helping patients with heart and lung conditions, such as heart attacks, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and asthma.
  • Pediatric Physical Therapists: Pediatric physical therapists specialize in working with children with developmental delays, congenital disabilities, and injuries.
  • Geriatric Physical Therapists: Geriatric physical therapists work with older adults, helping them manage age-related conditions such as arthritis, osteoporosis, and balance problems.
  • Sports Physical Therapists: Sports physical therapists work with athletes and active individuals to prevent and treat sports-related injuries and help them improve performance.
  • Women's Health Physical Therapists: Women's health physical therapists specialize in treating women's health issues such as pregnancy-related pain, pelvic floor dysfunction, and incontinence.

Are you suited to be a physical therapist?

Physical therapists have distinct personalities. They tend to be social individuals, which means they’re kind, generous, cooperative, patient, caring, helpful, empathetic, tactful, and friendly. They excel at socializing, helping others, and teaching. Some of them are also investigative, meaning they’re intellectual, introspective, and inquisitive.

Does this sound like you? Take our free career test to find out if physical therapist is one of your top career matches.

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What is the workplace of a Physical Therapist like?

The workplace of a physical therapist can vary depending on their specific area of specialization. However, most physical therapists work in hospitals, clinics, private practices, or rehabilitation centers. They may also work in schools, nursing homes, or in patients’ homes.

In a hospital setting, physical therapists may work with patients who are recovering from surgeries, illnesses, or injuries. They may also work in intensive care units or with patients who have chronic conditions that require ongoing care. In a clinic or private practice, physical therapists may work with patients who have less severe injuries or conditions, such as sprains or strains. These patients may come in for regular appointments to receive treatment and rehabilitation.

Rehabilitation centers are another common workplace for physical therapists. These centers specialize in providing care and rehabilitation to patients who have experienced a stroke, traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, or other severe injuries or illnesses. Physical therapists in rehabilitation centers work with patients to help them regain their strength, mobility, and independence.

Some physical therapists may also work in schools or nursing homes. In schools, physical therapists may work with children who have disabilities or developmental delays to help them improve their mobility and coordination. In nursing homes, physical therapists work with elderly patients to help them maintain their independence and mobility as they age.

In general, the workplace of a physical therapist is typically a clinical environment that is clean and well-equipped with exercise equipment, treatment tables, and other tools necessary to provide care to patients. The work can be physically demanding, as physical therapists may be required to help patients with mobility or lifting. However, many physical therapists find the work to be rewarding, as they are able to help patients recover from injuries or conditions and improve their quality of life.

Frequently Asked Questions

Occupational Therapist vs Physical Therapist

Occupational therapists (OTs) and physical therapists (PTs) are both healthcare professionals who work with patients to improve their physical abilities and quality of life, but their approaches and areas of focus differ.

Occupational therapists help people of all ages to perform daily tasks, such as dressing, bathing, and cooking, by teaching them new ways to approach these tasks and using adaptive equipment when needed. They also work with patients to improve cognitive, social, and emotional skills, and can help patients return to work or school. OTs work with patients who have conditions such as arthritis, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injuries, and developmental delays.

On the other hand, physical therapists work with patients to improve their mobility and range of motion, decrease pain, and prevent or recover from injuries or surgeries. They use exercises, stretches, manual therapy, and other techniques to help patients strengthen their muscles and improve their coordination and balance. PTs work with patients who have conditions such as back pain, sports injuries, neurological disorders, and post-stroke recovery.

In summary, while OTs and PTs both help patients improve their physical abilities and quality of life, OTs focus more on daily living tasks and improving cognitive, social, and emotional skills, while PTs focus more on mobility and physical rehabilitation.

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Physical Therapist vs Physiotherapist

While the terms "physical therapist" and "physiotherapist" are often used interchangeably, there may be some subtle differences depending on the country and the specific context.

In general, the term "physical therapist" is more commonly used in the United States, whereas "physiotherapist" is more commonly used in other countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. However, both terms refer to healthcare professionals who specialize in the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of physical impairments, disabilities, and injuries.

There may also be some differences in the scope of practice and the training required for physical therapists and physiotherapists depending on the country. For example, in some countries, physiotherapists may have a more extensive scope of practice and may be able to prescribe medication or perform certain medical procedures, while in other countries, physical therapists may have a more specialized focus on certain areas such as sports medicine or orthopedics.

Overall, however, the roles and responsibilities of physical therapists and physiotherapists are largely similar, and both professions play a critical role in helping patients recover from physical limitations and achieve maximum function and mobility.

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Pros and Cons of Being a Physical Therapist

While being a physical therapist can be a rewarding career, there are several pros and cons to consider before making your decision to work in this field. Here are some of the advantages and disadvantages of being a physical therapist:


  • Fulfilling work: Physical therapists often find their work to be fulfilling as they help patients recover from injuries, regain strength, and improve their quality of life.
  • Job security: There is a growing demand for physical therapists due to an aging population and an increase in chronic health conditions.
  • Variety of work settings: Physical therapists can work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, clinics, schools, and private practices.
  • Good salary: Physical therapists can earn a good salary, especially with experience and specialized certifications.


  • Physically demanding: Physical therapy work can be physically demanding as therapists may need to lift and move patients, and work long hours on their feet.
  • Emotional toll: Working with patients who are in pain or struggling with mobility can take an emotional toll on physical therapists.
  • Administrative tasks: Physical therapists may spend a significant amount of time on administrative tasks, such as documenting patient progress and billing.
  • Continuing education: Physical therapists are required to complete continuing education courses to maintain their license, which can be time-consuming and costly.