How to Become a Licensed Physical Therapist Assistant

Learn how to become a licensed physical therapist assistant. Research the education requirements, licensure information and experience required for starting a career in physical therapy.

Should I Become a Licensed Physical Therapist Assistant?

Under the supervision of a licensed physical therapist, physical therapist assistants help to improve the mobility and daily function of patients who have been injured or have disabilities. Some of the treatments that physical therapist assistants may administer include exercise, massage, balance training, ultrasound therapy, electrical stimulation and mechanical traction. After treating patients, physical therapist assistants must document patient responses and report their observations to the physical therapist.

These professionals can work in several different places of employment, including doctors' offices, hospitals, nursing homes, health care centers and government offices. Many physical therapist assistants spend much of their day on their feet, helping to lift patients, which may risk back injury.

Career Requirements

Degree Level An associate's degree is required to comply with licensing requirements in most states
Degree Field Physical therapist assistant
Licensure A state-issued license is required in most states
Experience Entry-level; no experience necessary
Key Skills Compassion and interpersonal skills; manual dexterity and stamina; knowledge of computer programs such as Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Access or FileMaker Pro, bookkeeping software, medical software like TherAssist and BioEx Systems Exercise Pro; experience with various physical therapy equipment, such as walkers, chair lifts, patient care beds, therapeutic balls and prosthetic devices
Salary (2014) $54,410 annually (median salary for all physical therapist assistants)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, O*NET OnLine

Step 1: Earn an Associate's Degree

Physical therapist assistants are required to have associate's degrees in most states, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Physical therapy assistant programs usually take two years to complete and are commonly available through trade schools and community colleges. These programs consist of both classroom and clinical components and are designed to provide students with all of the skills they need to pursue a career after graduation. In addition to taking courses in anatomy and physiology, medical terminology, kinesiology, psychology and rehabilitation, students must gain experience working at a treatment center. Students also receive instruction in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and first aid.

Success Tip:

  • Improve physical fitness. Time spent working with patients often involves some physical exertion since patients may need to be lifted or otherwise physically assisted. For this reason, physical therapist assistants should be in good physical condition and moderately strong. Improving physical fitness can help an assistant maintain strength and stamina while working after graduation.

Step 2: Become Licensed

Information from the BLS revealed that most states require physical therapist assistants to become licensed. Those who graduate from an accredited physical therapy assistant program are eligible to take the National Physical Therapy Examination, which is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. Some states also require state examinations to be taken in addition to the national exam. Continuing education credits may be required to maintain licensure depending on the state.

Success Tip:

  • Become a member of a professional organization. Joining a professional organization, such as the APTA, can provide a physical therapist assistant with a variety of resources and benefits to aid in his or her career. The APTA even has a specific membership level available only to physical therapist assistants. Membership benefits include discounts on national conferences, networking opportunities and access to continuing education options.

Step 3: Earn a Credential

Earning voluntary credentials, such as the American Physical Therapy Association's (APTA) Recognition of Advanced Proficiency for the Physical Therapist Assistant credential, may help a physical therapist assistant stand out as a professional in the field. Physical therapist assistants who are members of the APTA and have at least five years of work experience, 60 hours of continuing education credits, a letter of recommendation and demonstrated leadership abilities may qualify for this credential. The work experience requirement includes at least 2,000 total working hours in such areas as musculoskeletal, geriatric, pediatric or neuromuscular physical therapy. Five hundred of the hours must be completed in the year prior to applying for the credential.

Step 4: Advance in the Field

Physical therapist assistants looking to advance should consider continuing their education and pursuing a degree to become a physical therapist. According to APTA, there are a couple options for PTAs. The first is participating in a bridge program, which serves to help applicants pursuing a physical therapy graduate degree gain prerequisite credit for some of the courses they took in their PTA program. The second option is to enroll in a bachelor's degree completion program. These programs allow applicants to apply the knowledge gained in their PTA program towards a bachelor's degree in a health-related field. The program will also prepare a PTA for a graduate course of study in physical therapy.

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