Health Care Careers - Physical therapist

Physical therapy is a very popular, competitive career with many job opportunities. Physical therapists evaluate and treat patients who suffer from the effects of injuries or diseases. They have important roles in the rehabilitation of their patients. They work to relieve symptoms, correct existing problems, and prevent further physical disabilities associated with a patient's condition. Their patients may suffer from diverse conditions such arthritis, cerebral palsy, back pain, head injuries, or fractures.

Physical therapists design specific treatment programs for their patients, depending on the patient's injury or disease. For example, if a patient has lower back pain, the physical therapist may design a program that includes hot packs and traction. They are responsible for outlining the program and its desired outcome in a treatment plan. It is required in most states for a patient to be referred to a physical therapist by a physician. The referral may give the physical therapist the freedom to devise the patient's treatment program or the physician may give specific treatment instructions.

Some treatments physical therapists use to address their patients' conditions include exercise, massage, ultrasound, hydrotherapy (water therapy such as whirlpools), electrical stimulation (when electricity is used to massage deep tissue or to relieve swelling), hot packs, ice, paraffin (hot wax), and traction (when a person's body is gently pulled by a machine to stretch muscles and increase circulation). During the first visit, a patient is evaluated and a treatment program is developed. On following visits, the patient receives treatment by the physical therapist, a physical therapy assistant, or aide.

During the evaluation of the patient, the physical therapist performs diagnostic tests. These tests provide the therapist with information on muscle function, strength, and range of motion, balance, coordination, and areas of weakness, and whether the patient has suffered any brain damage. This information, along with the patient's medical history and diagnosis from the patient's physician, helps the therapist devise an effective treatment program and monitor the patient's progress.

Physical therapists work in a variety of settings, including private practice, hospitals, clinics, and rehabilitation centers, or they provide home health care for their patients. They may specialize in pediatrics (children), geriatrics (elderly), sports injuries, cerebral palsy, or mental illnesses. They may also teach or conduct research.

Physical therapy assistants help physical therapists in administering treatment to patients and maintaining documentation of a patient's progress. They usually interact more with the patients than the physical therapists, who are often overloaded with administrative duties and supervisory responsibilities.

Training to Be a Physical Therapist

A physical therapy program is typically a three-year, full-time program. It requires two to three years of prerequisite (required) undergraduate college courses that include biology, chemistry, and physics, before a student may apply for the program. Practical experience in the field as a physical therapy aide is also a requirement. Most programs offer a master's degree but some still only offer the bachelor's degree. In 2001, however, all programs will offer the master's degree.

In order to practice, a physical therapy graduate must pass a state licensing examination. Some states require continuing education to maintain a license. To keep up on the latest advances in the field, physical therapists should seek continuing education whether the state in which they are practicing requires it or not.

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