Your Quick Guide to Starting a Career in Physical Therapy

Your guide to a career in physical therapy
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What do Michael Jordan, country singer Randy Travis, and my grandmother all have in common?

No, this isn’t the start of some crass joke. I’m looking for a real answer.

Give up?

They’ve all gone to see a physical therapist! That’s how wide a range there is in terms of patients that physical therapists work with. It’s also one of the best parts of the job according to many who work in this profession.

Yep, one of the best parts of being a physical therapist is getting to work with patients from all walks of life and all with different stories. Not only that, but you get to see them improve physically with your help!

But how, exactly, do they do that?

We’ll explore that question and others in this quick guide to starting a career in physical therapy.

What does a physical therapist do?

A physical therapist’s work is focused on the human body. They are working with patients to improve mobility, relieve pain, restore function, and/or to prevent disabilities.

They work with patients who have been injured or ill and are often involved in the rehabilitation of patients who have chronic injuries or pains or who have just gone through surgery.

This means that as a physical therapist, you work with a lot of different types of people and bodies. Patients can be anyone from professional athletes to people who are just hoping to be able to carry their grandchildren.

The five most common types of physical therapists

Orthopedic:

This type of physical therapy is focused on improving the use of a person’s muscular and skeletal system. It involves work with muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints, and bones. These therapists often work with people recovering from orthopedic surgery. Their patients also include people suffering from sports injuries, arthritis, other diseases or injuries that affect the muscular and skeletal systems, or amputations.

Geriatric:

Geriatric physical therapy is concerned with people going through normal adult aging. This type of therapy will involve practices designed to help to reduce pain, increase fitness ability, and improve mobility. Some of the most common conditions treated in this type of physical therapy are Alzheimer’s, arthritis, joint replacement, hip replacement, problems with balance, incontinence, and cancer.

Neurological:

Physical therapists who specialize in this area focus on helping patients who have a neurological disease or impairment. Some examples include ALS, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury, stroke, paralysis, spinal cord injury, and Parkinson’s disease. Neurological physical therapists work to help patients become as independent and self-functioning as possible.

Cardiovascular and Pulmonary:

This type of physical therapy focuses on patients who have had any cardiovascular or pulmonary problems. This includes heart attacks, pulmonary fibrosis, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. These therapists will also often work with patients who have undergone any pulmonary or cardiac surgery.

Pediatric:

Physical therapists who specialize in pediatrics work with infants, toddlers, children, and adolescents who are experiencing any limited movement or learning disabilities. They will help to improve fine and gross motor skills, flexibility, strength, as well as work to alleviate any pain the child is feeling. They will also work with children who were born with health problems such as spina bifida.

What is a typical day like?

Or maybe we should say a not so typical day. No day is ever the same because a physical therapist is working with different patients every day. This article on Vault.com does a good job of showing how a day may vary depending on the level of the therapist as well as the type of patients they treat. You also need to check out this amazing video that shows you a day in the life of a bunch of different types of physical therapists in their respective locations.

We also conducted our own interview with a physical therapist who works at a rehab clinic in Hawai’i.

But the general outline of a physical therapist’s day usually starts with doing a patient review—looking over charts, checking on where they are in their therapy. Or, if there’s a new patient coming in, learning about their injury and medical history. There’s actually a lot of paperwork that goes along with this job. Physical therapists keep very detailed notes and logs of each individual patient, insurance forms, and other types of required medical notes.

When the therapist is working with a patient, they’ll diagnose, evaluate, and recommend treatments based on those observations and the background information. A typical session will last about an hour or so and afterwards, the therapist will be sure to make notes on the patient’s progress.

Essential skills:

    • People Skills – This is definitely a people-oriented job. You’re working with a lot of different people every single day, patients and coworkers alike. You need to be able to get along with a lot of different types of personalities as well as have patience for others’ frustrations.
    • Communication Skills – Not only do you have to be easy to get along with, but you also need to have strong communication skills. The types of treatments prescribed to physical therapy patients are not pills or other medications. They’re physical activities and that means, as a physical therapist, you have to be able to communicate clearly enough to teach your patients to do these exercises on their own.
    • Listening and Problem Solving – It’s not just necessary to be able to speak and get your point across. You also have to be able to listen and observe your patients, digest that information, and figure out what needs to be done.
    • Physical Skills – In this career, you need more than the soft and hard skills you write on your résumé. You also have to be physically capable of doing your daily work and that means an ability to bend, twist, apply pressure to patients’ bodies, balance, stretch, crouch, and kneel. Basically you have to be physically fit enough to assist and support any patient in their treatments and exercises.

Pros:

  • High-Demand Job – With the aging population and humans being humans, this is definitely not a job that is going “out of style.” There is a great need for people who can fix our bodies.
  • No 9-5 Desk Work – This is definitely not a job where you sit behind a desk all day (which we all know is not the best for us). You’re actively working with patients and constantly moving.
  • Wide Range of Specialties and Locations Within the field, there are a lot of different directions you can go. Like we mentioned above, you can choose to specialize in a certain type of physical therapy and can work in different settings like hospitals, clinics, schools, homes, nursing homes, and private care facilities.

Cons:

  • Cost of Education – All those years in school are going to add up. There is a big dollar sign when it comes to the cost of learning to be a physical therapist.
  • Limited Opportunity for Career Transitioners – If you discover later in life that you’d actually prefer to work in an office, it’s going to be a pretty hefty transition because your skill set is pretty different from that of a 9–5er.
  • Lots of Medical Paperwork – There is a lot of important paperwork to go over for each patient. Different insurance companies work in different ways. Figuring out what is covered can often be pretty difficult.

Does this career sound appealing, but you’re still not sure if you should drop everything, switch your major, and follow this path? In his interview, Marco Adamé Jr. recommends that students go and volunteer at some hospitals or clinics to find out if this is really the career for them. He shares advice on how a student can reach out to a physical therapist as well as what they should do while volunteering.

Homework time! Interested in a career in physical therapy? Start exploring the different types of physical therapy to see which area of the industry catches your attention most. Then follow Marco’s advice and start reaching out to hospitals and/or clinics to see if you can volunteer there.

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