Physical therapy is a profession made up of physical therapists and physical therapist assistants.
Physical therapists are licensed health care providers. They evaluate, diagnose, and manage health conditions and movement problems in people of all ages and abilities. They empower people to take an active role in their care.
Physical therapists use the best available evidence to design treatment plans specific to each person’s needs and goals. They help prevent or improve many chronic conditions and diseases and provide treatment and strategies to:
- Improve and restore movement and function.
- Manage pain.
- Lessen the symptoms of many conditions and diseases.
- Recover from and prevent injury.
Physical therapists also play a unique role in promoting health, wellness, and fitness. They help people overcome barriers to regular physical activity to benefit physical, mental, and social health.
Physical therapists are movement experts who improve quality of life through:
- Hands-on care.
- Patient education.
- Prescribed movement.
You can contact a physical therapist directly for an evaluation. To locate a physical therapist in your area, visit Find a PT.
Physical therapist assistants also are licensed. They provide care under a physical therapist's direction and supervision. Services provided by PTAs may include:
- Teaching exercises prescribed by a physical therapist to improve movement, strength, and coordination.
- Showing how to safely walk with crutches, canes, or walkers.
- Providing other prescribed treatments to relieve pain, aid healing, and promote better movement.
They also may help measure changes in function resulting from physical therapy.
Physical therapists and PTAs work with each other, and with other health care providers to ensure the best care. You can see a physical therapist or PTA almost anywhere, including:
- Private practices.
- Outpatient clinics.
- Home, work, and school.
- Sports and fitness facilities.
- Nursing homes and rehab facilities.
Learn more about Choosing Your Physical Therapist.
Below are some physical therapy practice areas. Click on the title to see a description:
Acute care physical therapists are consulted and provide care for people with urgent medical conditions who need immediate medical attention. These conditions:
- Cause movement problems.
- Result in loss of physical function.
- Can lead to wounds.
Acute care physical therapists evaluate and manage movement problems that result from complex medical conditions. They see patients in a variety of settings including:
- Emergency departments.
- Intensive care units.
Acute care physical therapists often care for people with health conditions such as:
- Total joint replacements.
- Fractures or trauma.
- Stroke and spinal cord injuries.
- Fall risk or balance issues.
- Cancer-related physical problems.
- Medical problems and/or recovery from surgery.
- Infection, wounds, burns.
- Heart and lung conditions.
- Organ transplants (both before and after).
Acute care physical therapists also recommend appropriate placement for further physical therapist services in the home or in an outpatient, rehab or skilled nursing facility after discharge.
Aquatic physical therapists provide treatment and services for patients using the physical properties of water. Water provides buoyancy, resistance, and support to enhance rehab for people of all ages. Aquatic physical therapy can help to improve:
- Function and independence.
- Body mechanics and posture.
- A person's ability to relax.
Cardiovascular and pulmonary physical therapists provide health, wellness, and treatment in many settings for people of all ages. They care for people who are at risk for, or diagnosed with, heart, lung, and other health conditions such as:
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (often referred to as COPD).
- Acute and chronic breathing disorders.
- Vascular (blood vessel) disease.
- Arterial (artery) disease.
- Cystic fibrosis.
- High blood pressure.
- Heart disease.
Geriatric physical therapy focuses on improving function and quality of life for older adults. Physical therapists who practice in this area treat a broad range of people, including:
- Healthy adults who want to continue to safely pursue sport and leisure activities as they age.
- People who are at risk for injuries from falls.
- Those with medical conditions that limit their movement or ability to take part in everyday activities.
- Critically ill or injured older adults in the hospital.
- Older persons recovering from surgery.
- Frail adults who require short-term skilled nursing or long-term care.
- Older adults in hospice care who want to remain as independent as possible.
Geriatric physical therapists often treat people with health conditions such as:
- Cancer-related problems.
- Physical problems due to high blood pressure.
- Fall risk.
- Fractures (broken bones).
- Heart and lung disorders.
- Joint replacement surgery.
- Conditions, such as stroke, Parkinson disease, multiple sclerosis, and balance disorders.
- Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
- Osteopenia and osteoporosis.
- Overweight and obesity.
- Sports injuries.
- Wounds and amputations.
Home health physical therapists provide skilled services in the home. They often treat older adults and children with developmental disabilities. They help people of all ages recover from injury or illness. Home care may be provided in the:
- Patient’s or caregiver's home.
- Hospital emergency room.
- Skilled nursing facility.
- Long term care facility.
- Group home.
Home health physical therapists often treat people at home with health conditions such as:
- Total joint replacements.
- Progressive neurological conditions (such as multiple sclerosis)
- Fall risk.
- Chronic pain.
- Incontinence (bladder or stool leakage).
- Heart failure and heart disease.
Neurologic physical therapists evaluate and treat conditions caused by disease or injury of the nervous system. They care for people of all ages to improve function and their ability to take part in daily activities. Neurologic physical therapists provide care in many settings, including:
- Acute care hospitals.
- Rehab centers.
- Outpatient clinics.
- Skilled nursing and long-term care facilities.
- In the home and other community locations.
Neurologic physical therapists often provide treatment for people with health conditions such as:
- Balance and inner ear disorders.
- Conditions such as cerebral palsy, spina bifida, and other genetic disorders.
- Stroke and accidents involving the brain and blood vessels.
- Tumors affecting the nervous systems.
- Traumatic brain injury.
- Parkinson disease.
- Multiple sclerosis.
- Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
- Acute or chronic conditions affecting the brain's signal to the arms and legs. Examples include Guillian Barre and chronic inflammatory neuropathy.
- Spinal cord injury.
Oncologic physical therapists provide therapy services for cancer survivors of all ages. They practice in many settings including:
- Acute care and rehabilitation hospitals.
- Skilled nursing facilities.
- Outpatient clinics and in the home.
- Health and wellness centers.
Often physical therapy treatment for cancer survivors begins in the early stages of a cancer diagnosis. Oncologic physical therapists help survivors manage cancer-related problems during and after treatment to help them maintain or gain:
- Improved function.
Oncologic physical therapists often treat people with health conditions such as:
- Breast cancer.
- Colon cancer.
- Lung cancer.
- Lymphedema (swelling due to a buildup of lymph fluid) related to cancer.
- Bone cancer.
- Brain cancer.
- Multiple myeloma.
- Skin cancer.
Orthopedic physical therapists provide care for people who have problems involving the muscles, bones, and joints. Orthopedic physical therapists diagnose, manage, and help to prevent a variety of disorders. They are experts in assessing movement problems. They help people move better, often with less pain, through (manual) hands-on therapy, patient education, and prescribed movement. Orthopedic physical therapists practice in many settings including:
- Outpatient clinics and rehab facilities.
- Sports clinics.
- Work sites.
Orthopedic physical therapists often provide treatment and services to help people of all ages manage:
- Low back and neck pain.
- Rotator cuff injuries and other shoulder problems.
- Plantar fasciitis (foot and heel pain).
- Recovery from bone and joint surgery.
- Muscle strains.
- Joint sprains, pain, and swelling, including knee and ankle injuries.
- Chronic pain.
- Tennis and golfer’s elbow.
- Carpal tunnel syndrome.
Pediatric physical therapists provide care for children (birth to 21 years) with developmental disabilities. They also support families who aid in helping children develop, restore, and improve mobility. These services are provided in homes, schools, the community, hospitals, and clinics. Pediatric physical therapy benefits children and their families and caregivers by:
- Promoting activity and the ability to take part in everyday routines.
- Increasing function and independence.
- Enhancing learning opportunities.
- Improving strength and endurance.
- Helping children reach developmental milestones and promoting mobility.
- Easing the challenges of daily caregiving.
In addition, pediatric physical therapists promote health and fitness for children of all abilities. They provide information to, and work together with, families and other health care and education specialists. Pediatric physical therapists often provide treatment and services for children to help manage conditions such as:
- Developmental delay.
- Cerebral palsy.
- Spina bifida.
- Down syndrome and other genetic disorders.
- Neuromuscular disorders.
- Orthopedic conditions or injuries.
- Pulmonary disorders.
- Brain injury.
- Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.
- Burns or other injuries.
- Autism spectrum disorders.
Sports physical therapy focuses on prevention, evaluation, treatment, injury recovery, and performance enhancement. They most often treat athletes and people who are physically active. Sports physical therapists screen athletes before sports participation, recommend equipment, prescribe fitness programs, and much more. They use the best available research to help active people prevent and recover from injury to meet their goals.
Sports physical therapists often provide the following services:
- Performance enhancement.
- Injury prevention.
- On-site evaluation and management of sports injuries.
- Treatment and rehabilitation.
Pelvic health physical therapists evaluate, manage, and help prevent disorders that most often affect women. They care for both women and men across the life span including:
- Young female athletes.
- Women of childbearing age, before, during, and after pregnancy.
- Women going through menopause.
- Older adult women.
- Male patients with pelvic floor disorders including pain and incontinence.
Pelvic health physical therapists commonly treat the following health conditions:
- Urinary incontinence (leakage).
- Bowel incontinence.
- Pelvic pain.
- Pregnancy and postpartum (after childbirth) pain and weakness.
- Breast cancer.