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How to Become a Physical Therapist

Physical therapists aren't just for pro athletes: They work with patients of all ages on these areas to diagnose problems and recommend treatments to prevent disabilities, ease pain, increase range of motion, and restore mobility and function. Physical therapy has proven benefits in the treatment of work, sports or accident injuries as well as the effects of arthritis, strokes, burns and amputations, and conditions such as multiple sclerosis.

Physical therapist assistants are supervised by and work closely with physical therapists to help provide patient care. Physical therapists often work closely with other health professionals to devise integrated patient health regimens. Because of the physically demanding nature of the work--standing, stooping and lifting patients--physical therapists and assistants need to be physically fit. They should also be compassionate and caring.

Educational requirements to become a physical therapist

Campus and online physical therapy schools offer a variety of academic programs that can lead to careers in physical therapy or help you expand an existing careers if you are employed as an assistant. Online physical therapy programs are gaining in popularity because of the convenience of studying at your own pace and location. Because many physical therapy programs require supervised, hands-on clinical work, hybrid programs, which offer both online and clinical campus components, are available.

Two-year associate degree programs are required in most states if you want to work as a physical therapy assistant. Because the minimum education required to become a licensed physical therapist is a master's degree, only a few physical therapy bachelor's degree programs exist. Most are combined with a master's degree, and often are referred to as either 4+2 or 4+1 programs, in reference to the years of study required.

Online physical therapy programs that lead to a master of physical therapy degree, or MPT, are also available for students who hold bachelor's degrees. Depending on the relevance of the undergraduate coursework to physical therapy, the MPT degree can take from two to three years to complete. Doctor of physical therapy degrees, or DPT, take about three years to complete. Physical therapists must also pass national and state examinations to be accredited and are regulated and licensed by the state in which they practice. Most states also regulate physical therapy assistants; requirements vary by state.

Physical therapists salary and employment outlook

Of fields requiring a bachelor's degree or higher, the Department of Labor lists the physical therapist field as the 13th fastest growing in the nation. The number of physical therapists is expected to grow 30 percent nationally between 2008 and 2018 and create more than 56,000 new jobs. In 2009, physical therapists earned mean annual wages of $76,220, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Workers in Alaska, Maryland and Nevada earned the highest average wages among the 50 states, but those in certain metropolitan areas earned mean wages exceeding six figures. These areas included Jackson, Miss., and McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, Texas.

Physical therapy assistants earned mean annual wages of $48,590 in 2009, with Texas paying the highest salaries. Cited by the DOL as the third-fastest growing occupation with an associate degree requirement, jobs in the industry are expected to increase 33 percent between 2008 and 2018, from 63,800 positions to 85,100.

Obtaining an education from physical therapy schools can take you from physical therapy assistant to physical therapist and even further in a profession that is projected to continue to grow as people live longer and pay closer attention to their quality of life.