Physical therapists aren't masseuses

Physical therapists aren't masseuses

Why you should consider adding this highly trained medical professional to your rehabilitation team

Amie's husband, Tom, had a little chat last summer with a golf buddy whose back was really bothering him.

DAVE: Amie's a physical therapist, right?

TOM: Yeah. She's been practicing for more than 10 years now.

Multitalented: Physical therapists can help patients prevent or manage a health condition using a variety of treatment techniques to restore function, reduce pain and prevent disability. (John Block/Getty Images)
DAVE: So she took classes on the weekends? Took an exam online? My back is killing me. I'll bet she gives a great massage.

Ouch! The truth is that many people do not know that physical therapy is a health profession—not a hobby. The reality is that student physical therapists go through three or more years of postgraduate education and training, and most are now awarded doctorate degrees.

What is a physical therapist?

The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) recognized the need for educating the public about physical therapy and launched a public relations and marketing campaign called "Move Forward: Physical Therapy Brings Motion to Life." A major goal of this outreach was to let people know what physical therapists do and how they can help people get back in motion and improve the quality of their lives. Its website ( shares these key points.

  • All physical therapists are required to receive a graduate degree—either a master's or a doctorate. There are 210 academic institutions with professional physical therapist programs, and more than 90 percent offer the DPT degree. (More than 75 percent of all 2008 physical therapy graduates were awarded a DPT degree.)
  • Physical therapists take a national licensure examination. State licensure is also required in each state where a physical therapist practices.
  • Physical therapists apply research and proven techniques to help improve or restore mobility.
  • Physical therapists provide care for people in a variety of settings including hospitals, private practices, outpatient clinics, home health agencies, schools, sports and fitness facilities, work settings and nursing homes.
  • Physical therapists diagnose and treat people of all ages including newborns, children and the elderly. They may consult and practice with other health professionals.
  • Physical therapists can help patients prevent or manage a health condition using a variety of treatment techniques to restore function, reduce pain and prevent disability.

The evolution of physical therapy

Physical therapy has advanced from "restoration aides" that helped wounded soldiers returning from World War I to a nursing specialty to a clinical doctorate degree program. Even doctoral residencies and fellowships are now an option.

The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties recognizes eight specialties: pediatrics, geriatrics, women's health, cardiovascular and pulmonary, clinical electrophysiology, neurologic, sports and orthopedics. Certified specialists are expected to build on their education and clinical skills in their particular field and are required to be recertified every 10 years.

Education and training

Professional physical therapy education programs have prerequisites similar to those of veterinary medical schools. Required courses include biology, zoology, anatomy, physiology, organic chemistry, biochemistry, physics, calculus and statistics. Students accepted into a physical therapy program study anatomy, neuroscience, kinesiology, biomechanics, pathology, radiology/imaging and pharmacology. Clinically based courses such as medical screening, diagnostics and outcomes measurement are also part of the curriculum.

Physical therapy students learn how to clinically evaluate patients. They are trained to perform joint mobilization and manipulations, to prescribe functionally based therapeutic exercise and to facilitate healing and recovery through real-world and simulated activities. They learn to use physical modalities such as ultrasonography, lasers, electrotherapy and hydrotherapy. Extensive supervised clinical experience is also provided—an essential part of a physical therapist's education.