How to Become a Physical Therapist Assistant

LearnHowToBecome Team
Michelle Honeyager
November 22, 2021

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A physical therapist assistant works under physical therapists to help patients increase mobility and manage pain. The career has a median pay of $49,970 annually, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The career is also projected to grow 29% from 2019-2029, or much faster than average, making this a promising career.

Further, a traditional bachelor's degree costs $27,000 a year, and a physical therapist assistant typically only needs an associate degree, costing $3,700 a year on average. That's half the schooling and a fraction of the cost of seeking a bachelor's degree.

Read on to learn how to become a physical therapist assistant.

What Does a Physical Therapist Assistant Do?

Physical Therapist Assistant Career Basics

Physical therapist assistants help patients with injuries or illnesses regain movement and reduce or manage pain.

These professionals help patients do specific exercises that are part of the patient's care plan. They also perform tasks like massages, gait and balance training, and stretching to help patients. Physical therapist assistants might also use tools like walkers to help patients.

How to Become a Physical Therapist Assistant

Step 1
Find an accredited physical therapist assistant program.

The Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education accredited nearly 390 postsecondary programs in 2020, which typically last about two years and award an associate degree. Associate degrees cost just over $3,700 a year on average.

Step 2
Pass your state's licensure exam.

Most states require physical therapist assistants to be licensed. Your state offers the exam you must take to get certified, and the cost varies depending on where you live.

Step 3
Gain clinical experience.

PTAs should obtain clinical experience working directly with patients to strengthen the skills they learned in school and gain new insight into the field by working closely with licensed physical therapists. You may gain experience through clinical hours, an internship, or on the job.

Step 4
Obtain additional certifications.

Depending upon your desired specialty, you can pursue additional credentials or certifications, such as:

  • Functional training specialist
  • Orthopedics
  • Cardiovascular and pulmonary
  • Oncology
  • Neuromuscular
  • Pediatrics

For many specialty certifications, PTAs must complete at least 2,000 hours of clinical practice to meet eligibility requirements. Specialty exams administered by the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialistsmeasure a candidate's knowledge of the advanced skills. Fees may vary, but often cost in the hundreds of dollars for exam application fees.

Physical Therapist Assistant Salaries and Job Growth

State

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and Projections Central, a U.S. Department of Labor-sponsored website.

Top 10 States With the Highest Job Growth

  1. Georgia: 45.5%
  2. Arizona: 45%
  3. Maryland: 41.7%
  4. New York: 37.6%
  5. Colorado: 37.5%
  6. Nevada: 33.8%
  7. Utah: 33.7%
  8. Nebraska: 31.5%
  9. Iowa: 31.1%
  10. Tennessee: 30.3%

Career Paths for Physical Therapist Assistants

Physical therapist aides do more of the support work. They may clean treatment areas, set up physical therapy equipment, wash linens, help patients ambulate, and do clerical tasks in the office. The median annual wage for physical therapist aides is $28,450, as reported by the BLS. These professionals usually just need a high school diploma and on-the-job training.

Unlike aides, these professionals have a more hands-on approach with patient care, performing some of the actual stretching and movement exercises, along with other treatments like massage. They need an associate degree covering physical therapy assisting and have to be certified.

The physical therapist is in charge of the patient's care plan. They may diagnose function and movements, develop an individualized care plan, evaluate records, and educate family and patients.

These professionals need graduate-level training after taking a bachelor's degree in the healthcare or fitness fields. They also need a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree from an accredited program, which can take three years.

Physicians diagnose and treat injuries and illnesses. Physicians need a bachelor's degree and a graduate degree from a medical school, which can take an additional four years on top of the bachelor's degree. Doctors also need to complete internships and residency programs, which can take between 3-9 years.

Becoming a physician is a major undertaking that puts you at the top of the medical field.

FAQ on Earning Your Physical Therapist Assistant Degree or Certification

Getting an education and earning licensure aren't the only things aspiring physical therapist assistants need to know. Below are five frequently asked questions on how to become a physical therapist assistant.

Are continuing education credits required to become a physical therapy assistant?

Each state has varying requirements for continuing education. Licensed physical therapist assistants should check with their state board of physical therapy for continuing education requirements in their home state. In addition to continuing education credits, PTAs can also attend conferences and complete additional certifications.

What's the difference between a physical therapy assistant and a physical therapy aide?

Education and scope of responsibilities are the primary factors that separate the two jobs. Physical therapist assistants have completed an accredited college degree program and passed the required national licensure exam, while physical therapy aides only need a high school diploma or GED. PT aides typically gain experience on the job, and their duties are restricted since they don't have the same scope of education as physical therapist assistants. PT aides also make much less than physical therapist assistants.

Are there specialties in the physical therapy assisting field?

The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties certifies physical therapists in specialties like:

  • Geriatrics
  • Neurology
  • Pediatrics
  • Orthopedics
  • Women's health

These board-certified specialists often enlist physical therapy assistants in their duties. Physical therapist assistants skilled in these specialty fields often command higher wages than their peers who lack specialized training.

How do I find out more about the physical therapy assistants national licensure exam?

Candidates should contact the physical therapy board in their home state to determine eligibility requirements for the National Physical Therapy Exam. The American Physical Therapy Association provides great insight into the examination process. Each section of the five-part computer-administered exam has 50 questions, but only 200 are scored. Scores range from 200 to 800, and candidates must score a 600 or higher to pass the exam.

What are the pass rates for the National Physical Therapy Exam?

In 2020, 83% of first-time candidates who graduated from accredited physical therapy programs passed the exam. Licensure is valid for two years.

Related Career Options

If you're determined to enter the medical field, but you're not sure which career path to take, check out our list of the best jobs in the medical field. Here are some other medical jobs with low educational requirements:

Certified Nursing Assistant

These professionals assist in the direct nursing care of patients, usually helping with activities of daily living.

Dental Assistant

Dental assistants help with patient care, x-rays, recordkeeping, and scheduling.

Pharmacy Technician

A pharmacy technician helps organize and give out medication.

Become Team
Michelle Honeyager
Contributing Writer

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