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What does a physical therapist do?

physical therapist working with older woman on core strength

As self-proclaimed movement experts, physical therapists help people achieve optimal mobility, manage pain and improve their overall physical function.

Physical therapists assess each patient’s condition, needs and possible treatment outcomes, and then develop a multi-step plan to help restore them to full health. Physical therapy patients can be of any age and ability and need a PT’s expertise for a large variety of injuries and conditions.

Physical therapists often rank as having a high job satisfaction relative to other occupations. US News & World Report, for example, ranks the profession as #3 on their list of best healthcare jobs and #6 on their list of best jobs overall. If you want a rewarding career helping others, becoming a physical therapist could be the perfect match for you.

What you’ll be doing as a physical therapist

Throughout your career as a PT, you might work in a physician’s office, hospital, home health care service or residential care facility. Your goal will be to develop treatment plans for clients who have lost mobility or strength in a particular area of their body

You’ll instruct clients in exercises and repetitive movements that they can use in physical therapy sessions and on their own time to help regain full physical capabilities. An example of daily tasks could include:

Assess patients’ physical states and needs

Monitor and document patient progress

Determine reasonable goals and recovery needs for patients

Assist clients in exercises to minimize injury and promote fitness

Demonstrate exercises properly for patients (akin to personal trainers)

Meet with patients regularly to go through exercises and track progress

Help patients use assistive technology such as prosthetics, wheelchairs, walkers and more

Develop treatment and workout plans for clients, possibly in collaboration with other healthcare providers

Physical therapist job description according to an expert

“We look at why the patient can’t move. Sometimes it’s neuromuscular, neurological or sometimes it’s musculoskeletal. Sometimes it’s pain, so we figure it out,” said Janis McCullough, a physical therapist and assistant teaching professor with the University of Washington’s Division of Physical Therapy. “We analyze the whole body figuring out where’s the breakdown, and then we target our expertise in strength, range of motion, balance, movement and coordination.”

One responsibility that can be easy to overlook is fostering positivity for patients. Oftentimes, recovering from an injury or surgery can be frustrating and even scary for patients. Someone who has experienced physical trauma, for example—and who has lost mobility as a result of that trauma—may be angry, terrified, confused, unmotivated or in any other negative state of mind.

Part of your job as a physical therapist is to encourage and motivate your patients to do their best while supporting them to achieve their wellness goals.

Roles of a physical therapist: Who you’ll be helping

Physical therapists treat patients across the lifespan with a vast array of conditions.  Where you work and who you’ll be helping can be narrowed down if you choose to specialize. As a generalist, you may get to work with and treat a little of everything.

McCullough said that the types of conditions PTs treat could be thought of in terms of inpatient versus outpatient care.

Inpatient care 

“Someone that’s in an inpatient rehab unit, let’s say they’ve had a major trauma: they’ve had a car accident, a stroke, they’ve lost a limb, they’ve had burns or developmental delay of some sort or major illness. We are working with those patients—from the ICU to acute care, to rehab to skilled nursing to hopefully home—to get them functioning so they can get out of that hospital, breathe on their own, walk on their own, eat on their own—those kinds of things.”

Outpatient care 

“The other side of physical therapy would be the more the outpatient world where we see patients that are interrupted with their day-to-day, but maybe not completely blocked from their day-to-day like an inpatient. We would see patients with pain limiting function: they have hip pain, they have back pain, neck pain that’s limiting their function in terms of their goals and what they’re trying to accomplish.

Post-surgical we can see someone has a knee replacement, a shoulder rotator cuff repair, and we could guide them based on tissue healing back to using that limb in a safe way without damage to the repair,” McCullough said.

Physical therapy specialties

physical therapist adjusting woman's neck

If you know you want to work with a particular group of people and/or people with certain conditions, you may consider specializing. Physical therapists have the option to get board-certified in 10 different specialty areas through the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS):

  • Cardiovascular and pulmonary
  • Clinical electrophysiology
  • Geriatrics
  • Neurology
  • Oncology
  • Orthopedics
  • Pediatrics
  • Sports
  • Women’s health
  • Wound management

To earn any of these specializations, you must submit evidence of completing at least 2,000 hours of direct client care in the specialty area OR an accredited post-professional clinical residency within the specialty area, plus pass an exam. Some specialty certifications also have a few additional requirements.

Specializing can be an excellent option to enhance your credibility in the field and possibly lead to a higher salary as a PT.

Physical therapist work environments and schedules

Physical therapists can be found in a wide range of work settings. Depending on where you work, your exact job and the duties you perform day-to-day may vary a bit. Some of the possible places PTs can work include:

Health practitioners’ offices:
In a health practitioner’s office, you may work in tandem with other healthcare professionals to provide patients with holistic treatment. Depending on the patient, your duties in a health practitioner’s office will vary. Usually, you work with the same patients regularly for a certain period of time until their conditions improve.
Many physical therapists who work in hospitals interact primarily with patients who need an extended stay or who are recovering from surgery or serious injury. You help patients either regain body function or adjust to having a life-changing injury.
Home health care services:
Being a physical therapist for a home health care service means you visit patients in their own homes to work with them there. This can involve massage, exercise or even helping to come up with solutions for in-home mobility issues patients might have with day-to-day tasks.
Nursing care facilities:
This will often (though not always) involve working with elderly patients. In a nursing home setting, you are responsible for working with patients to improve overall function and promote the best possible mobility for each patient’s individual condition.
Owning or co-owning a physical therapy practice is no easy task, but it does have benefits; you can choose your own hours or even decide to focus on a specific type of patient.

Equipment you can expect to use as a PT

Physical therapists use many types of high and low tech equipment on a daily basis. The equipment you use is influenced by the type of setting you work in, the populations you serve and the conditions you treat.

“We use our hands a lot. That’s our main tool I would say,” McCullough said. “Traditional technology would be wheelchair access, like sip and puff wheelchairs, joysticks and mobility devices to help people get through their environment if they couldn’t do it in their regular way prior to injury.” Physical therapists help patients use and get used to assistive technology.

“We use our hands a lot. That’s our main tool I would say.”

McCullough said that physical therapists also use many devices to measure a person’s strength, range of motion, step length and more—crucial data in figuring out where a person is and where they want to eventually be. This might include goniometers, force plates, electromyography (EMG) and other biomechanical technology. “The tech is just not slowing down at all.”

Like many other healthcare professionals, physical therapists also often use telehealth data systems to keep and maintain virtual patient records. They may even conduct virtual visits with patients.

Physical therapists may have to wear scrubs and lab coats if they work in a hospital or other medical setting. If they work in a slightly more lax environment such as an outpatient clinic or home health, they may wear business casual attire.

Key skills needed to be a physical therapist

Although physical therapy draws people from many different backgrounds, not everyone is cut out for this career. Becoming a physical therapist requires years of PT schooling (typically at least seven years to complete a bachelor’s plus a doctorate degree) which can be challenging for some.

If you think you can handle the workload, McCullough said there are a few physical therapists skills and traits that anyone who wants to be a successful PT should possess: 

PT Skill/TraitWhy it’s important
Passion for helping othersEvery PT should be devoted to helping others heal and improving their quality of life.
Love of science and learningBecoming a PT requires completing a science-heavy education. In addition, physical therapists must be willing to keep up their continuing education as science and technology evolve within the profession.
Ability to analyze and solve complex problemsPhysical therapists are often presented with complex medical situations that require an analytical mind and a penchant for problem-solving.
Connect with patients and their familiesPTs usually see patients over multiple sessions, perhaps for months on end or longer. You’ll need to be personable and get to know your patient if you wish to successfully motivate them to get better.
Collaborate with other healthcare professionalsPhysical therapists may work alongside other healthcare professionals such as doctors, nurses, occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists and more. You’ll need to collaborate with these professionals who may be treating your patient simultaneously.

Continuing education for physical therapists

PTs must maintain their state-issued license in accordance with the laws and regulations of their state. This typically entails completing a certain number of continuing education hours every renewal cycle. The exact number of hours and types of activities that can satisfy those hours depend on the regulations set forth by your state’s physical therapy board.

If you are board certified by the ABPTS, your certification is good for ten years. In order to maintain your certification after ten years, you have to submit evidence of your continued competency requirements in three year cycles of your third, sixth and ninth year. 

A day in the life of a physical therapist

A given day is seldom the same as the day before in the life of a physical therapist. With so many work settings and populations to serve, one PT’s daily routine could drastically differ from the routine of another.

Be that as it may, McCullough said that a physical therapist’s typical routine involves hopping between patients to address their treatment plans. “I would say anywhere from eight to 15 patients a day sometimes, depending on the setting you’re in.”

“You go through your day, moving from patient to patient to help each patient in their individual treatment plan to restore their movement, function, strength and range of motion. You might be in in a school setting working with kids that need to access their classroom better. You might be in an outpatient ortho setting where you’re seeing the patient once every 45 minutes for every different thing. One hour to the next you could be seeing a jaw pain patient, or you could be seeing a knee replacement. After lunch you could have a brand new person that just had ankle surgery. So it’s very different but it’s fast-paced, it’s moving.”

McCullough said that physical therapists may work with physical therapist assistants (PTAs) or aides that help them execute the treatment plans that the physical therapists create. “We can hand the patient off to them to carry out some of their treatment plans. And then we’ll reevaluate them after a while.”

Frequently asked questions

What is the most common reason people visit physical therapists?

People see physical therapists for a huge variety of reasons. Most people see physical therapists either in an inpatient or outpatient setting depending on the severity of their condition, which may include injuries, concussions, osteoarthritis, multiple sclerosis, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and much, much more.

Can physical therapists do massage therapy? 

Physical therapists are not licensed massage therapists. That being said, they may be trained in ways to utilize massage to promote healing, reduce pain and restore mobility in patients.

Can physical therapists order MRIs and X-rays?

Individual states determine whether a physical therapist can order MRIs and X-rays, called imaging. As of October 2021, seven states and the District of Columbia expressly permit PTs to refer patients for imaging according to American Physical Therapy Association: Colorado, Utah, Wisconsin, North Dakota, Rhode Island, New Jersey and Maryland. It should be noted, however, that not all of these states allow physical therapists to order both MRIs and X-rays.  

Can you see a physical therapist without a referral?

Yes, you can see a physical therapist without a referral. Many people seek out PTs on their own so that they can address specific fitness goals.

Physical therapy vs. athletic trainer: what’s the difference?

The domains of physical therapists and athletic trainers have a lot of overlap, but they are two very different healthcare professions. For one, their education requirements differ: a master’s degree is the entry-level degree to practice as an athletic trainer and a doctor of physical therapy (DPT) is the entry-level credential to be a physical therapist. Athletic trainers work more with athletes and in sport-focused environments. Physical trainers tend to work with a broader scope of patients with more types of physical ailments and injuries.

How to start your physical therapy career today

If you’re enticed by a career helping others that is flexible and has a lot of room for specialization, becoming a physical therapist could be right for you. If you think you have what it takes to complete a DPT program, you’ll want to start by researching bachelor’s degrees that will set you up for success in your later studies.

If you already have a bachelor’s degree, you should determine which additional prerequisite courses you may need to satisfy the admission requirements for DPT programs.

kendall upton

Written and reported by:

Kendall Upton

Staff Writer

janis mccullough

With professional insights from:

Janis McCullough, PT, DPT, OCS, OTR/L, COMT, Assistant Teaching Professor

University of Washington Division of Physical Therapy

Updated: March 2, 2023