Physical therapy is hardly a new practice. As a profession, its roots are thought to go as far back as 3,000 B.C. to early Chinese massage techniques, with massage ultimately becoming its own healing modality.  Later, in the early 1800s, a Swedish fencer would found what’s credited as the first modern institution to train physical therapists. But it wasn’t until the First World War that the institutionalization of physical therapy hit its major turning point. At that time, women were recruited to assist orthopedic surgeons in restoring physical function to injured soldiers.

In short, physical therapists have been around for some time. But their status as doctors hasn’t always looked the way it does today. 

Below, we walk through everything you need to know about working with a physical therapist. Whether you’re someone who struggles with chronic pain or you’re simply interested in new avenues of preventative care, physical therapists can be a great resource — but first, it’s good to understand what exactly they do.

What is a physical therapist?

The snappy definition is that physical therapists are movement experts. As health care professionals, they treat folks who have injuries and medical conditions, either temporary or chronic, that limit their ability to move and cause them pain. 

Many, but not all, physical therapists choose to specialize in a particular branch of therapy, from musculoskeletal and orthopedic to cardiopulmonary, neurology and geriatric practices. Beyond specializations, the “where” of physical therapists’ work is varied, too. Physical therapists will meet with patients in many different settings, from private practices, hospitals, outpatient clinics, schools, fitness centers and nursing homes.

What do physical therapists do?

After examining a patient, a physical therapist will work with them on a treatment plan that will, over time, help restore mobility, reduce pain and improve body functionality. Some of the health conditions that physical therapists often help treat include: Arthritis; fibromyalgia; carpal tunnel syndrome; joint injuries, including knee and ankle injuries; osteoporosis; chronic pain; plantar fasciitis; back and neck pain; and post-operative rehabilitation. In general, physical therapists can help anyone suffering from pain, injury or weakness. Oftentimes, treatment plans will incorporate broader targets like balance, posture, strength and coordination, too. 

One of the biggest advantages of working with a physical therapist is that patients are core decision makers throughout the process. When working with a PT, you’ll be made an active participant in co-developing your treatment plan. While reducing the need for surgery and prescription drugs — and preventing related medical bills from stacking up as a result — the right physical therapist will give you the tools necessary to actively partake in your own health and recovery. And the methods for care they’ll give you are ones you can take home with you, too. On the preventative side, physical therapists can also help proactively ward off mobility loss and pain by working with patients on wellness plans that support an overall healthier lifestyle.

What’s the difference between a medical doctor and a physical therapist? 

It’s a question that physical therapists are used to hearing: “Are physical therapists doctors?” The short answer is that some are, and some aren’t. It depends on when your PT started practicing. 

The first Doctorate in Physical Therapy (DPT) degree wasn’t issued until 1996. Prior to that, education for physical therapists consisted of either a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree. After the mid-90s advent of doctorate degrees for physical therapists, however, that changed. While there are still some Master’s programs out there, 94% of the physical therapy programs accredited by the American Physical Therapy Association today have switched over from Master’s to doctoral programs. Bachelor’s of Physical Therapy degrees, meanwhile, have fully phased out.

All of that is to say: The significant majority of physical therapists who’ve entered the field since the 2000s hold a degree from a three-year doctoral program, which qualifies them to tack “Dr.” onto their name. (Meaning that, yes, some physical therapists are indeed doctors!) However, there are still plenty of PTs with Bachelor’s or Master’s degrees from the early ‘90s or earlier who continue to practice, with decades of experience under their belt to qualify them as much as any three-year program could.

How do you become a physical therapist?

Generally speaking, it takes completing a series of standardized steps to become an accredited PT. We break down what that looks like below. 

Step 1: Earn a relevant bachelor’s degree. 

Most physical therapists will start out by earning their bachelor’s degree in a field related to heath, fitness or sports, or science. There are also a list of prerequisite classes and conditions, such as observation hours, that must be satisfied to be admitted into Physical Therapy School. This list can vary by school.

Step 2: Get your Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) Degree.

As mentioned previously, most Doctor of Physical Therapy programs take three years to complete and involve a combination of classroom courses and hands-on clinical rotations. Other “flex” DPT programs that cater to working students, with online courses and weekend labs, typically take four years to finish. 

Step 3: Pass the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE).

Now that you’ve graduated, it’s time to get licensed. In order to become a licensed physical therapist, you’ll need to pass the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE), offered four times yearly. 

Step 4: Get your license to practice.

This looks different depending on what state you’re in. Beyond passing the NPTE, some states will require additional criteria, like the completion of compliance training, in order to be licensed. You’ll need to check with your state board to confirm what your requirements are.

After completing the above steps and becoming a licensed physical therapist, you can then, should you choose to, complete a postgraduate clinical residency and pursue becoming a board-certified specialist. 

Why the field of physical therapy is growing

Physical therapy is consistently ranked one of the best jobs in health care — and it’s also a field that’s expanding rapidly. Employment for physical therapists was projected to grow 28 percent between 2016 and 2026, well above the average growth rate for other occupations. With roughly 41 million people set to leave the workforce behind them for retirement today, a growing number of active, aging adults are looking to physical therapists to help them preserve their physical fitness, active lifestyle, and health.

Interested in working with a physical therapist yourself? Our team of expert physical therapists and specialists at Physio Physical Therapy are here to help you make a treatment plan that works for you. Make an appointment with us!

Christopher Taylor, PT

Chris Taylor is the Founding Physical Therapist at PHYSIO Physical Therapy and Wellness Asheville. He has been voted Best Physical Therapist in Western North Carolina every year by the Mountain XPress Reader Poll. His experience includes being a patient himself which deepens his understanding of each aspect of the rehab process. He has lived and worked in 11 states which contributes to the treatment style he has developed which breaks the mold. Become a better You today! #KeepAshevilleActive