How to Become a Licensed Physical Therapist Assistant

Learn how to become a licensed physical therapist assistant. Research the education requirements, licensure information and experience required for starting a career in physical therapy.

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Do I Want to Be a Licensed Physical Therapist Assistant?

Under the supervision of a licensed physical therapist, physical therapist assistants help to improve the mobility and daily function of patients who have been injured or have disabilities. Some of the treatments that physical therapist assistants may administer include exercise, massage, balance training, ultrasound therapy, electrical stimulation and mechanical traction. After treating patients, physical therapist assistants must document patient responses and report their observations to the physical therapist.

These professionals can work in several different places of employment, including doctors' offices, hospitals, nursing homes, health care centers and government offices. Many physical therapist assistants spend much of their day on their feet, helping to lift patients, which may risk back injury.

Job Requirements

An associate's degree is required to obtain employment as a physical therapist assistant. Many states require licensure after completing an approved degree program. Licensure typically involves the passage of both a national and state examination in the field. The following table outlines common requirements to become a physical therapist assistant:

Common Requirements
Degree Level An associate's degree is required to comply with licensing requirements in most states*
Degree Field Physical therapist assistant*
Licensure A state-issued license is required in most states*
Experience Entry-level; no experience necessary*
Key Skills Compassion and interpersonal skills are required; manual dexterity and stamina are necessary*
Computer Skills Microsoft Excel; database programs, such as Microsoft Access or FileMaker Pro; bookkeeping software; medical software, like TherAssist and BioEx Systems Exercise Pro; various video game software**
Technical Skills Experience with various physical therapy equipment, such as walkers, chair lifts, patient care beds, therapeutic balls and prosthetic devices**

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **O*NET OnLine.

Step 1: Earn an Associate's Degree

Physical therapist assistants are required to have associate's degrees in most states, reports the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Physical therapy assistant programs usually take two years to complete and are commonly available through trade schools and community colleges. These programs consist of both classroom and clinical components and are designed to provide students with all of the skills they need to pursue a career after graduation. In addition to taking courses in anatomy and physiology, medical terminology, kinesiology, psychology and rehabilitation, students must gain experience working at a treatment center. Students also receive instruction in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and first aid.

Success Tip:

  • Improve physical fitness. Time spent working with patients often involves some physical exertion since patients may need to be lifted or otherwise physically assisted. For this reason, physical therapist assistants should be in good physical condition and moderately strong. Improving physical fitness can help an assistant maintain strength and stamina while working after graduation.

Step 2: Become Licensed

Information from the BLS revealed that most states require physical therapist assistants to become licensed. Those who graduate from an accredited physical therapy assistant program are eligible to take the National Physical Therapy Examination, which is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. Some states also require state examinations to be taken in addition to the national exam. Continuing education credits may be required to maintain licensure depending on the state.

Success Tips:

  • Consider earning a credential. Earning voluntary credentials, such as the American Physical Therapy Association's (APTA) Recognition of Advanced Proficiency for the Physical Therapist Assistant credential, may help a physical therapist assistant stand out as a professional in the field. Physical therapist assistants who are members of the APTA and have at least five years of work experience, 60 hours of continuing education credits, a letter of recommendation and demonstrated leadership abilities may qualify for this credential. The work experience requirement includes at least 2,000 total working hours in such areas as musculoskeletal, geriatric, pediatric or neuromuscular physical therapy. Five hundred of the hours must be completed in the past year prior to applying for the credential.
  • Become a member of a professional organization. Joining a professional organization, such as the APTA, can provide a physical therapist assistant with a variety of resources and benefits to aid in his or her career. The APTA even has a specific membership level available only to physical therapist assistants. Membership benefits include discounts on national conferences, networking opportunities and access to continuing education options.
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