What Does a Physical Therapy Assistant Do?

If you get satisfaction out of helping others reach their goals, here’s a job to consider.

Physical therapy assistants, also called PTAs, work one-on-one with patients who are recovering from injuries and illnesses to regain movement and manage pain. They help people live healthy, active lives.

Physical therapy assistants work under the direct supervision of a physical therapist. Assistants’ tasks vary by state, but they often take a holistic approach that includes exercise, massage, balance training, stretching and resistance training.

PTAs are in demand. They provide patient care in a variety of settings, including hospitals, private practices, outpatient clinics, home health agencies, schools, sports facilities, work settings and nursing homes. They work with patients of all ages to recover or to simply prevent future problems.

If you’re ready to learn more about this satisfying career, keep reading.

$ 42,400 - $ 82,300
$ 62,000
A physical therapy assistant helps a woman keep her balance as she tries to walk in the hospital
Physical therapy assistants possess the compassion and skills to help patients get back to normal daily activities. (Credit: Tyler Olson/Shutterstock)

Job Responsibilities

  • Observe patients before, during and after therapy
  • Communicate information to a physical therapist
  • Treat patients using massage and other techniques that include specific equipment
  • Teach patients how to do specific exercises and and stretches 
  • Educate patients about how to care for themselves after treatment, or work with family members to do this
  • Document treatment and patient’s progress
  • Set up and maintain room and equipment used for treatment

How To Become a Physical Therapy Assistant: FAQs

What steps do I take to get this job?

Students must earn an associate degree from a physical therapist assistant program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). 

PTA programs offer coursework in anatomy, physiology, exercise science, behavioral science, kinesiology and patient care skills. During this time, assistants also gain clinical experience through hands-on work under supervision. Most programs last two years, including full-time clinical work for 16 weeks. 

All states require physical therapist assistants to be licensed or certified. Earning a license typically requires that students graduate from an accredited PTA program and pass the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE). The exam is given by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy.

Certification is not always required, but it’s a smart way to demonstrate specific skills or knowledge. Plus, it’s another way to learn more about a specialty area such as geriatric, orthopedic, neurological, pediatric or cardiopulmonary care. One way to specialize is through the PTA Advanced Proficiency Pathways program, sponsored by the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA).

Many physical therapy assistant students also earn certification in CPR.

Many assistants take continuing education courses to maintain their license and stay up to date. 

A related job, physical therapist aide, may provide an opportunity to see if you’re a good fit for this line of work. Aides do not provide direct patient care. They focus on getting the equipment and the patient ready for a therapy session. Becoming an aide requires a high school diploma or equivalent and on-the-job training. Most states do not require physical therapy aides to be licensed. 

Are there any other qualifications?

Some states require PTA program graduates to pass an additional exam, undergo a background check and be at least 18 years of age before they can provide services. 

Physical therapy assistant job outlook: Is there a demand for this career?

Demand for this career is expected to grow 24% from 2021 to 2031, much faster than the average for all occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In fact, it’s one of the most in-demand skilled trade jobs in the U.S. because the need for physical therapy will continue to grow as the population ages.

What skills and qualities would make someone a good fit for this job?

Successful therapy assistants tend to share these traits: 

  • Detail-oriented
  • Excellent communication and interpersonal skills
  • Compassionate and enjoy helping others improve their health
  • Good dexterity
  • Possess the physical stamina to work with patients all day, including kneeling, stooping, bending and spending extended time on your feet
The bottom line:

This rewarding career is a great fit for someone who wants to help others improve or preserve their quality of life by reducing pain and improving mobility. These skilled professionals are in-demand at hospitals and private clinics. If this sounds like a satisfying profession to you, check out SkillPointe’s selection of training opportunities near you. 

Day in the Life of a Physical Therapy Assistant

Physical therapy assistants like Brandon Shreve help people who are recovering from injuries and illnesses to regain movement.

Day in the Life of a Physical Therapy Assistant

Brandon Shreve always wanted to work in a helping profession. The tricky part was finding the right one. 

Through his work as a case manager, he saw the tangible benefits of physical therapy and decided to switch careers. 

Now he works at Mountain State Physical Therapy in West Virginia, where he can see how patients directly benefit from his help.

"Every patient and every day is different," he says. Those are just some of the reasons why he says being a physical therapy assistant is so satisfying.

Physical Therapy Assistant Training in Your Area

Black Hawk College logo

Physical Therapist Assistant, A.A.S.

Black Hawk College
Moline (0.0 Miles)
Delaware Technical Community College-Terry logo

Physical Therapist Assistant, A.A.S.

Delaware Technical Community College-Terry
Dover (0.0 Miles)
Western Iowa Tech Community College logo

Physical Therapy Assistant, A.A.S

Western Iowa Tech Community College
Sioux City (0.0 Miles)
College of Central Florida logo

Physical Therapist Assistant, A.S.

College of Central Florida
Ocala (0.0 Miles)
Mineral Area College logo

Physical Therapist Assistant, A.A.S.

Mineral Area College
Park Hills (0.0 Miles)
Athens Technical College logo

Physical Therapist Assitant, A.A.S

Athens Technical College
Athens (0.0 Miles)
Lake Superior College logo

Physical Therapy Assistant, A.A.S

Lake Superior College
Duluth (0.0 Miles)
Rasmussen University - Ocala logo

Physical Therapist Assistant, A.A.S.

Rasmussen University - Ocala
Ocala (0.0 Miles)
Black Hawk College logo

Certified Physical Therapy Aide Certifcate (Online, Voucher Included)

Black Hawk College
Moline (0.0 Miles)
Daytona State College logo

Physical Therapist Assistant (Limited Access Program), A.S.

Daytona State College
Daytona Beach (0.0 Miles)
Athens Technical College logo

Personal Trainer Certificate

Athens Technical College
Athens (0.0 Miles)
Rowan-Cabarrus Community College logo

Physical Therapy Assistant, A.A.S.

Rowan-Cabarrus Community College
Salisbury (0.0 Miles)