Physical Therapy Certifications

There are many different certifications available for physical therapists. Learn about the types and requirements to become licensed and certified.

Physical Therapy Requirements

When you decide to pursue physical therapy as a career, you're setting off on the path to become a medical professional who works with people who have been injured or have a condition that impairs their movement or causes pain. You'll formulate treatment and care plans for patients based on their individual cases, taking into consideration factors like the cause of the condition, the patient's mobility and restrictions, and pain levels.

An advanced degree is needed for becoming a physical therapist and, although master's degrees were previously an option, a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) from an accredited institution is currently the only degree available in the United States. The prerequisites for applying to a DPT program include having taken classes such as biology, physiology, anatomy, and chemistry, as well as holding a bachelor's degree, preferably with an emphasis in a health, science, or health-related field.

Physical Therapy License

Once you've obtained your degree, you can apply for a physical therapy license in the state in which you want to work. Each state has its own licensing board as well as rules and regulations that apply to physical therapy practice. It's important to do your research, though, as the application requirements vary from state to state. For example, Arizona requires fingerprint clearance and Massachusetts does a background check on all applicants.

All states require that you pass the National Physical Therapy Examination. Even after you are licensed, you'll still have to renew your license regularly and earn continuing education credits, though the frequency for renewal and continuing ed requirements vary from state to state

Physical Therapy Certification

After you've met the educational requirements for becoming a physical therapist and received your license, you might choose to specialize in a specific type of therapy. Physical therapy certifications are available for physical therapists (PT) and PT assistants, and involve spending some time working as a PT in the area in which you want to specialize. Many certifications require evidence of having completed a post-professional clinical residency or proof of having worked a significant amount of hours as a licensed physical therapist in the desired specialty area.

List Of Physical Therapy Certifications

Once you're licensed, you can pursue obtaining a specific physical therapy certification, as offered by the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS). This organization is responsible for establishing specialty areas for certification, and they accept petitions for new specialty areas throughout the year. As of 2018, the ABPTS recognizes and offers certifications for nine physical therapy specialties:

  • Orthopedics
  • Sports
  • Pediatrics
  • Geriatrics
  • Cardiovascular and Pulmonary
  • Neurology
  • Clinical Electrophysiology
  • Oncology
  • Women's Health

Each of these specialties carries specific requirements in addition to licensure.

Women's Health Physical Therapy Certification

PTs certified in women's health are trained to deal with health issues specific to women including pregnancy/postpartum problems, pelvic floor dysfunction and pain, osteoporosis, and fibromyalgia. Obtaining a Women's Care Specialty (WCS) certification given by the ABPTS involves passing a written exam on general physical therapy practices and women's health issues. If you're interested in getting certified as a women's health physical therapist, you must also provide:

  • Proof of licensure
  • Evidence of 2,000 hours of women's care physical therapy in the U.S.
  • A recent (within the last 3 years) case study focused on demonstrating women's health specialty practice based on one of the applicant's patients

Alternatively, you can provide evidence of being enrolled in or successful completion of an American Physical Therapy-accredited post-professional clinical residency in women's health within the last 10 years.

Pediatric Physical Therapy Specialist Certification

Becoming certified in pediatric physical therapy shows licensed PTs have the training necessary to help children with a variety of congenital issues such as juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, muscular dystrophy and related disorders, cystic fibrosis, and spina bifida, as well as recovery from injuries.

The written exam for pediatric physical therapist specialist certification includes extensive testing on knowledge of medical conditions that apply specifically to children including the issues listed above, as well as growth and development of the musculoskeletal system, management of genetic disorders, and neonatal and pediatric intensive care. You must also show proof of one of the following if you want to be certified as a pediatric physical therapist:

  • Enrollment in or completion of an APTA-accredited post professional clinical residency in pediatric physical therapy
  • 2,000 hours of work with children as a licensed physical therapist within the last 10 years

Cardiopulmonary Physical Therapist Certification

Certified cardiopulmonary physical therapists specialize in helping patients manage and prevent cardiopulmonary issues resulting from disease or a post-surgical complication. Some of those include hypertension, chronic heart failure, asthma, and pulmonary complications after surgery.

In addition to taking a written exam specifically for cardiopulmonary PTs, you'll also need to submit evidence of current certification from the American Heart Association in Advanced Cardiac Life Support and participation in a clinical data analysis project within the last 10 years demonstrating your active role in scholarly research.

Additionally, you'll have to meet one of two further requirements when applying for a cardiopulmonary physical therapist certification:

  • 2,000 hours of cardiopulmonary patient care as a licensed PT in the U.S. within the last 3 years
  • Successful completion of an APTA-accredited post-professional clinical residency in cardiopulmonary physical therapy in the last 10 years

Clinical Electrophysiology Physical Therapist Certification

The issues you'll deal with as a clinical electrophysiology physical therapist might be hereditary or due to injury or disease. If you're looking to earn certification in this specialty, you must be prepared to answer questions on the certification exam relating to muscle fiber diseases or myopathies such as myositis or muscular dystrophy, pinched nerves, and carpal tunnel syndrome and similar entrapment neuropathies.

Similar to some of the other PT specialties, your application process will include providing evidence of completing at least 2,000 hours of electrophysiology physical therapy patient care as a licensed physical therapist in the U.S. within the last 10 years or proof you're working toward completing (or have already completed) an APTA-accredited post-professional clinical residency in electrophysiology physical therapy.

Additional prerequisites for clinical electrophysiology PTs also include:

  • A list of between one and three electrophysiological physical therapy learning experiences from working with a board-certified physical therapist in the clinical electrophysiology medical or PT specialty
  • A recommendation letter from the certified PT who supervised you
  • Copies of reports you've completed in the last 3 years working with patients suffering from various issues
  • A testing log documenting your 500 most recent examinations in electroneuromyography, completed in the last 10 years

Geriatric Physical Therapist Certification

When taking the exam to become a certified geriatric physical therapist, you'll be tested on your knowledge of foundational, clinical, and behavioral sciences along with patient management. You'll also need to be familiar with a range of medical conditions that affect seniors such as dementia or stroke, cardiovascular and pulmonary issues, and musculoskeletal conditions like osteoporosis, fractures, sprains, and spine problems.

You'll also need to meet at least one of the following requirements:

  • Proof of enrollment in or completion of an APTA-accredited post professional clinical residency in geriatric physical therapy
  • Evidence of 2,000 hours of working with seniors as a licensed physical therapist in the U.S. within the last 10 years

Neurological Physical Therapist Certification

Your work as a certified neurological physical therapist will require you to evaluate and treat patients whose mobility has been affected by conditions like traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries, balance disorders, muscle disease, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's disease and dementia.

When you seek certification as a neurological physical therapist, you'll be tested on foundational, behavioral, and clinical sciences along with knowledge of professional roles and patient management.

Additionally, you'll need to meet one of the basic two prerequisites that many other specialties require:

  • Completion of 2,000 hours as a licensed physical therapist in the U.S. with neurologic patients within the last 10 years
  • Proof of enrollment in or completion of a post-professional clinical residency in neurological physical therapy accredited by the APTA

Orthopedic Physical Therapist Certification

As an orthopedic physical therapist, you'll need to be familiar with issues that affect the cervical spine, thoracic spine, ribs, shoulders, hips, knees, thighs, and other parts of the musculoskeletal system. The exam to obtain an orthopedic physical therapist certification will test your knowledge of these parts of the body, as well as related topics, like anatomy and physiology, movement, pain science, and critical injury, diagnosis, and interventions. The prerequisites for applying for an orthopedic physical therapist certification are basic:

  • 2,000 hours of work as a licensed physical therapist in the U.S. in orthopedic physical therapy within the last 10 years

OR

  • Completion of or enrollment in an APTA-accredited post-professional clinical residency in orthopedic physical therapy

Sports Physical Therapist Certification

Sports physical therapists work specifically with patients to prevent and rehabilitate athletic and occupational injuries. Sports PTs also help with injury prevention, acute injury and illness treatment, and medical and surgical conditions and often work with athletes during training or on job sites.

If this specialty sounds right for you, you'll need to be prepared for the certification exam, which will test you on sports-related injuries, prevention, and treatment. The exam tests your competency with issues such as rehabilitation to return patients to sports or work--including examination, evaluation, diagnosis, prognosis, interventions, and outcomes.

Sports physical therapists must be CPR certified and have training in Emergency Cardiovascular Care (ECC) and national First Responder standards. Holding a current certification or license in one of the following areas is considered evidence of the proper required training:

  • Athletic trainer - certified by the National Athletic Trainers Association Board of Credentialing
  • Emergency medical responder - certified by the American Red Cross
  • Certified/licensed paramedic
  • Certified/licensed emergency medical technician

The specialty council also reviews training or certification courses not listed in the APTA eligibility requirements to determine whether they can count toward this prerequisite.

Additionally, you'll also need to submit evidence of

  • Enrollment in or completion of an APTA-accredited post-professional clinical residency in sports physical therapy

OR

  • 2,000 hours of work as a licensed physical therapist in the U.S. in sports physical therapy within the last 10 years

If you choose to provide proof of having worked in sports physical therapy, 100 hours of it must be direct patient care at an athletic venue, and half of the total hours of direct patient care must be associated with a contact sport.