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physical therapy assistant holding a set of weights standing in a gym

Physical therapist assistants apply their skills and knowledge to make a difference in patients’ lives. It’s a rewarding, rapidly growing career in which you can work with people one-on-one to help them regain movement and manage pain after an injury or illness. To be a physical therapy assistant (sometimes called PTA or PT assistant), you need compassion, communication skills, an interest in anatomy and physiology, and, of course, the proper training. Physical therapist assistants work under the guidance and supervision of physical therapists. 

To help you decide if a physical therapy assistant career is right for you, read on to learn about a day in the life, from their responsibilities to work hours to settings and patients.

What Does a Physical Therapist Assistant Do?
On a typical day, a physical therapy assistant may see new and repeat patients. All new patients must first meet with a physical therapist. The physical therapist evaluates the patient, determines a treatment plan with short- and long-term goals, and may assign a PTA to work with that client. After meeting with a physical therapist and other healthcare staff to discuss their patients’ needs, a physical therapy assistant may:  

Treat patients using exercise, traction, electrotherapy, gait and balance training, massage, and other therapeutic interventions
Modify treatments to match the client’s abilities and progress
Encourage and motivate people during difficult activities
Assist patients with movements or exercises, ensuring activities are done safely and correctly
Monitor patients before, during, and after therapy, measuring and documenting things like a patients’ range-of-motion or vital signs.

Physical therapy assistants also educate patients and family members on
The purpose and importance of physical therapy interventions
How to use devices and equipment, such as wheelchairs, crutches, or orthotics
Daily activities and movement outside therapy that can promote rehabilitation success. 

Following a session, the PTA will report patient progress to the physical therapist. 

What is a Typical Work Day for a Physical Therapist Assistant?
Physical therapist assistants generally work full time with set schedules. They primarily work during the day but some evening and weekend hours may be required to accommodate patients’ schedules. Their work requires stamina, as physical therapist assistants are on their feet most of the day as they set up and put away equipment, assist patients moving between treatment areas, and help people move into required positions.

What Patients Go to Physical Therapy?
Physical therapy can help people of all ages who desire rehabilitation after an injury or change in health status has impacted their mobility or other physical functions. Client conditions are vast and may include:
Back injuries/pain
Balance issues
Head or brain injuries

The need for physical therapy and physical therapists assistants is growing, and employment for PTAs is projected to increase 26% between 2021 and 2031. This growth will be fueled by the needs of aging baby boomers, an increase in patients with chronic conditions, and medical and technological developments that increase survival rates among trauma victims and newborns with birth defects. All of these populations will be likely to benefit from physical rehabilitation services.

Where Do Physical Therapist Assistants Work?
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the majority of physical therapy assistants work in the offices of physical, occupational and speech therapists, and audiologists. Hospitals are the second most common place of work, where a physical therapist assistant might help patients recovering from surgery, illness, or an accident.

Physical therapy assistants may also work in physician’s offices and for government organizations such as the Veterans Health Administration, the Department of Defense, and the Indian Health Service. In nursing care facilities or skilled nursing facilities, a physical therapy assistant might help the elderly or those in need of intense rehabilitation therapy. PTAs  employed by home healthcare services treat patients in their homes. Some physical therapy professionals specialize in a particular area such as sports medicine, school activities, or elder care.

How Do You Prepare for a Career as a Physical Therapist Assistant?
To enter this career, you’ll need to earn an associate’s degree from an accredited physical therapy assistant program. At South University, our Physical Therapist Assistant programs can be completed in as little as 2 years1 and can allow you to gain hands-on experience working with local physical therapists. After earning your degree, you’ll be prepared to pursue licensure or certification in your state2.

Average time to completion for continuously enrolled students full-time. Changing programs, taking remedial courses, taking time off from coursework, registering for fewer hours or unsuccessful attempts at course completion will increase the total length of the program and overall cost of education from what is disclosed.

2South University does not guarantee third-party certification/licensure. Outside agencies control the requirements for taking and passing certification/licensing exams and are subject to change without notice to South University.