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What Does a Physical Therapist Assistant Do?

Posted by Shannon Struby, PTA, MA Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021

Physical Therapist Assistant students stretching out a volunteer in class with the professor's assistanceYou're ready for a career in healthcare, but maybe you want something a little different. If you love being there for people in vulnerable moments and taking care of others and encouraging them along the way, a career as a physical therapist assistant might be for you.

But what does a physical therapist assistant do? We're pulling back the curtain on what a physical therapist assistant does on a daily basis. Learn what you should expect from a career as a PTA along with the many benefits that come with the ability to change lives on a regular basis.

Allied health is filled with careers centered around all aspects of care, but none provides the level of interaction quite like that of a Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA). Learn what PTAs do below.


1. Understand the Body


Understanding the mechanics of the human body and how every muscle, bone and ligament interacts is the beginning of what you’ll learn as a PTA. After all, in order to help a patient get through what’s wrong, you must possess knowledge of what the human body goes through when everything is working right.

You also need to understand how the body changes over the course of time or how it could differ between demographics. The best practice for helping a child or an elderly person might be different than the assistance you’ll need to offer a varsity athlete.


2. Take Direction

Your job as a PTA is to practice under the supervision of a physical therapist. The PT is responsible for the patient’s initial evaluation as well as occasional consultations to check on the patient’s progress, but providing the therapy itself? That’s largely going to be up to you.

As a PTA, you need to be able to translate the physical therapist’s plan of care into a treatment plan. The PT relies on you to follow their plan in order to help the patient achieve their short and long term goals after their injury.


3. Patient & Family Education

When we speak with students who have graduated from the program, they consistently say that the best part of being a PTA is meeting new people.

There’s a mistaken assumption that the PT takes on the bulk of patient interaction. That’s really not the case. It’s the PTA who works with each person regularly, and during the course of those sessions, you really get to know the person you’re helping. 

This isn’t like other disciplines where you come in, perform a single test and you’re done. As a PTA, you’re spending hours with each patient as you help them become more mobile. You’re teaching them movements and exercises as therapy progresses, sure, but you also get to learn about their lives and who they are as a person. You're also responsible for making sure a patient and their family understands exercises and stretches they need to do. 

If you’re not a people person, then this isn’t the job for you. But if you truly enjoy meeting brand new individuals almost every day, and you could see yourself working hard to help those persons improve their quality of life, then being a PTA is one of the most rewarding jobs out there.


4. Communication & Treatment Planning

The other fantastic benefit of being a physical therapist assistant is that you get to see visible progress of the people you help.

In other health professions, the results happen long after care has been prescribed. Not so with physical therapy. You’re seeing the results because you’re helping to produce the results.

If someone comes in after tearing their ACL, your first appointment will probably be when they are significantly lacking range of motion, making walking difficult. But then, thanks to the goals you’ve set and showed them how to accomplish, you’ll act as a witness to their progress, watching them return to a quality of life that would have been impossible without the therapies you’ve assisted with.

There’s no feeling quite like watching a healthy person walk out the door of the clinic for the last time, knowing full well that their doing so was the result of the hard work you’ve put in. Their determination becomes your own determination, and that cycle gets to repeat itself over and over for as long as you maintain your career.


5. Movement & Therapeutic Massage


The list of jobs you’ll be tasked with is probably a lot longer than you initially imagine.

In many cases, you’re helping with motions that you probably already picture when you think of physical therapy. You help a person as they learn to walk, take them through different movements so they can regain mobility of an appendage and assist them as they learn the basics of using crutches, a wheelchair, etc.

But therapy extends far beyond that. In many cases, you’ll act as a teacher, talking to someone about the exercises they can do once they leave and making sure they stick to their “exercise plan.” At other times, your job will be to act as pain manager, using different types of therapies to ease a person’s suffering as they cope with a debilitating injury.

You may not have even realized the different kinds of therapies that will fall under your banner. Massage therapy, for instance, is something that all PTAs must learn. Deep tissue massage can help reduce pain dramatically, and as a PTA, it’s up to you to administer these. Therapeutic modalities such as ultrasound, electrical stimulation, cold laser and diathermy are additional outlets that can be beneficial for patients.


An Obvious Next Step


If you’re considering life as a PTA, then this list of skills and job duties should re-confirm what you already know. Working with patients to improve their quality of life is a fulfilling path, one that will continue to surprise you and reward you for years to come.


Interested in a career as a PTA? Download our Degree Guide today!

Physical Therapist Assistant Degree Guide Download Now Graphic

Topics: allied health career, health professions

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