Physical therapists provide services that help restore function, improve mobility, relieve pain and prevent or limit permanent physical disabilities of patients suffering from injuries or disease. They restore, maintain and promote overall fitness and health. Their patients include accident victims and people with disabling conditions such as low-back pain, arthritis, heart disease, fractures, head injuries and cerebral palsy, among others.
Therapists examine patients’ medical histories and test and measure the patients’ strength, range of motion, balance and coordination, posture, muscle performance, respiration and motor function. They develop plans for treatment strategies and the anticipated outcomes. Treatments often includes exercise, especially for patients who have been immobilized or who lack flexibility, strength or endurance. Physical therapists encourage patients to use their muscles to increase their flexibility and range of motion. More advanced exercises focus on improving strength, balance, coordination and endurance. The goal is to improve how people function at work and at home.
Physical therapists can also use electrical stimulation, hot packs or cold compresses and ultrasound to relieve pain and reduce swelling. They might also use traction or deep-tissue massage to relieve pain and improve circulation and flexibility. They teach patients to use assistive and adaptive devices, such as crutches, prostheses and wheelchairs. They also can show patients how to do exercises at home to expedite recovery.
Physical therapists document each patient’s progress, conduct periodic examinations and modify treatments when necessary. Physical therapists often consult and practice with a variety of other professionals, such as physicians, dentists, nurses, educators, social workers, occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists and audiologists.
Some physical therapists treat a wide range of ailments; others specialize in areas such as pediatrics, geriatrics, orthopedics, sports medicine, neurology and cardiopulmonary physical therapy.
Physical therapists should have strong interpersonal skills so they can educate patients about their physical therapy treatments and communicate with patients’ families. Physical therapists also should be compassionate and possess a desire to help patients.
Education and Training
Each physical therapist needs a degree from an accredited physical therapy program and a state license, requiring passing scores on national and state examinations. Only master’s degree and doctoral degree programs are accredited, in accordance with the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education. The doctorate degree is the new educational standard for the field and is the required entry-level degree. The doctoral degree programs typically lasts three years.
Physical therapy education programs start with basic science courses such as biology, chemistry and physics and then introduce specialized courses, including biomechanics, neuroanatomy, human growth and development, manifestations of disease, examination techniques and therapeutic procedures. Besides getting classroom and laboratory instruction, students receive supervised clinical experience.
Preparation at UC Merced
Among the undergraduate courses that are useful when a student applies to a physical therapy education program are anatomy, biology, chemistry, social science, mathematics and physics. Before granting admission, many programs require volunteer experience in physical therapy departments of hospitals or clinics.
Specific course prerequisites vary for each school, but the following courses will fulfill all that are generally required. It is each student's responsibility to know the specific requirements of the school to which they will apply.
|One year of chemistry||CHEM 2 – General Chemistry I and
CHEM 10 – General Chemistry II
|One year of biological sciences||BIO 1/L – Contemporary Biology with lab and
BIO 2/L – Introduction to Molecular Biology with lab
|One year of physics||PHYS 8 – Principles of Physics I or
ICP 1B – Integrated Calculus and Physics: Physics or
PHYS 18 – Principles of Physics I for Biological Sciences and
PHYS 9 – Introductory Physics II or
PHYS 19 – Introductory Physics II for Biological Sciences
|One semester of physiology||BIO 161 – Human Physiology|
|One semester of anatomy||BIO 164 – Human Anatomy^|
|One semester of statistics||MATH 18 – Statistical Analysis of Scientific Data or
MATH 32 – Statistics or
PSY 10 – Analysis of Psychological Data
|One semester of introductory psychology||PSY 1 – Introduction to Psychology|
|One semester of abnormal psychology||PSY 142 – Abnormal Psychology|
^Course currently unavailable at UC Merced. May be taken at community college. Check with intended schools for more information.
The majority of schools require students to take the Graduate Record Exam. It is each student's responsibility to be aware of the specific requirements of the school to which they are applying.
- Azusa Pacific University - Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT)
- California State University, Fresno - Joint Master of Physical Therapy & Doctor of Physical Therapy
- California State University, Long Beach - Master of Physical Therapy (MPT)
- California State University, Northridge - Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT)
- California State University, Sacramento - Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT)
- Chapman University - Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT)
- Loma Linda University - Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT)
- Mount St. Mary’s College - Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT)
- Samuel Merritt University - Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT)
- UC San Francisco - Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT)
- University of Southern California - Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT)
- The University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (DPT)
- University of the Pacific - Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT)
- Western University of Health Sciences - Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT)
All states require physical therapists to pass national and state licensure exams before they can practice. They must also graduate from accredited physical therapist education programs.