Picking up where doctors leave off
When athletes tear tendons, dancers sprain their knees, and anyone injured in an accident needs more than a cast and some painkillers to heal, a physical therapist takes over where a physician leaves off. Prescribing and overseeing a regimen of strengthening exercises, stretching, and other non-surgical treatments, physical therapists attempt to bring their patients as far back to full strength as possible. One of the main objectives is to get patients functioning in society, at work, or in the home as quickly as possible. To do this, therapists also use electrical stimulation and ultrasound to relieve the pain associated with injuries or terminal illnesses, teach patients to use crutches, prostheses, and wheelchairs, and help them to cope with their injuries on a day-to-day basis. Physical therapists combine their medical expertise and assessments of patients' medical histories and individual needs to develop treatment plans. Therapists treat a wide range of ailments, but most find that specialization in areas such as pediatrics, geriatrics, orthopedics, sports medicine, neurology, and cardiopulmonary therapy suits them better.
In the office or at your home
Some physical therapists work in hospitals, schools, home health agencies, nursing homes, and physicians' offices; others have strong enough client bases to open their own practices. Both those in private practice and those who work for agencies or other employers occasionally travel to the homes of patients who are unable to travel to hospitals for treatment. Many therapists develop close, long-term relationships with their patients as they document their progress and modify treatment programs. Therapists work eight hours a day but frequently find that their patients' needs extend into evenings and weekends.
In addition to technical expertise, physical therapists must possess compassion and tact, especially when dealing with a patient's family. Physical therapists must be in top physical condition to lift and move their patients and heavy equipment, as well as to spend a great deal of time on their feet; their jobs require them to actively participate in their patients' treatment.
In order to practice physical therapy, therapists must complete a four-year undergraduate program. Most physical therapy programs start with basic biology, chemistry, and physics courses. Later in the program a student begins the study of biomechanics, neuroanatomy, human growth and development, manifestations of disease and trauma, evaluation and assessment techniques, research, and therapy. Like physicians, therapists receive supervised clinical experience in hospitals. After the four-year program, most graduates with aspirations of working with patients or starting their own practices pursue a master's degree in physical therapy.
Competition for entry to physical therapy programs is tough, so top grades from reputable schools are imperative. Volunteer experience in hospitals or clinics is also extremely helpful in gaining admittance. In order to advance past an administrative or research position, a master's degree is usually required. Physical therapists who want to stay on top of developments in the profession take continuing education courses and workshops; some states even require a certain number of hours of continuing coursework to maintain licensure.
Good pay;Wide variety of career options;Can have flexible hours
Averages about 40 per week
Median salary: $56,600
Master's degree in physical therapy;Must pass a state licensing exam
Most physical therapists find their jobs "rewarding and exhausting." Advancement in the field requires people to "pay their dues." The field is "very competitive, and very cliquey," depending on the place, insiders say. Perks of the job include travel, as therapists are often employed at agencies that specialize in roaming therapists, whose "travel expenses and living accommodations are paid, on top of their salaries." The dress is "casual and comfortable," ranging from a "white lab coat" to a "jogging suit with a company logo." Therapists are exposed to a "diverse group of people with different problems." A sense of personal accomplishment, combined with comfortable salaries for licensed therapists - "$60,000 to $75,000 is a lot of money" - make physical therapists a satisfied group of professionals.
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