Physical Therapist Assistants and Aides
Both physical therapist assistants and physical therapist aides work under the direction of physical therapists. They help patients who are recovering from injuries, illnesses, and surgery regain movement and manage pain. Physical therapist assistants are involved in the direct care of patients. Physical therapist aides often do tasks that are indirectly related to patient care, such as cleaning and setting up the treatment area, moving patients, and clerical tasks.
Physical therapist assistants typically do the following:
- Observe patients before and during therapy, noting their status and reporting to a physical therapist
- Help patients do specific exercises
- Use a variety of techniques, such as massage and stretching, to treat patients
- Use devices and equipment, such as walkers, to help patients
- Educate a patient and family members about what to do after treatment
Physical therapist aides typically do the following:
- Clean treatment areas and set up therapy equipment
- Help patients move to or from a therapy area
- Do clerical tasks, such as answering phones or helping patients with insurance paperwork
Physical therapist assistants help physical therapists provide care to patients. Under the direction and supervision of physical therapists, they give therapy through exercise; therapeutic methods, such as electrical stimulation, mechanical traction, and ultrasound; massage; and gait and balance training. Physical therapist assistants record patients’ responses to treatment and report the results of each treatment to the physical therapist.
Physical therapist aides help make therapy sessions productive, under the direct supervision of a physical therapist or physical therapist assistant. They usually are responsible for keeping the treatment area clean and organized and for preparing for each patient's therapy. They also help patients who need assistance moving to or from a treatment area.
In states where physical therapist assistants must be licensed, aides are not licensed and so cannot do tasks involving direct patient care. The duties of aides include some clerical tasks, such as ordering depleted supplies and filling out insurance forms and other paperwork.
Physical therapists, sometimes referred to as PTs, help people who have injuries or illnesses improve their movement and manage their pain. They are often an important part of rehabilitation and treatment of patients with chronic conditions or injuries.
Physical therapists typically do the following:
- Diagnose patients’ dysfunctional movements by watching them stand or walk and by listening to their concerns, among other methods
- Set up a plan for their patients, outlining the patient's goals and the planned treatments
- Use exercises, stretching maneuvers, hands-on therapy, and equipment to ease patients’ pain and to help them increase their ability to move
- Evaluate a patient’s progress, modifying a treatment plan and trying new treatments as needed
- Educate patients and their families about what to expect during recovery from injury and illness and how best to cope with what happens
Physical therapists provide care to people of all ages who have functional problems resulting from back and neck injuries; sprains, strains, and fractures; arthritis; amputations; stroke; birth conditions, such as cerebral palsy; injuries related to work and sports; and other conditions.
Physical therapists are trained to use a variety of different techniques—sometimes called modalities—to care for their patients. These techniques include applying heat and cold, hands-on stimulation or massage, and using assistive and adaptive devices and equipment.
The work of physical therapists varies with the type of patients they serve. For example, a patient suffering from loss of mobility due to Parkinson’s disease needs different care than an athlete recovering from an injury. Some physical therapists specialize in one type of care, such as pediatrics (treating children) or sports physical therapy.
Physical therapists work as part of a healthcare team, overseeing the work of physical therapist assistants and aides and consulting with physicians and surgeons and other specialists. Physical therapists also work at preventing loss of mobility by developing fitness- and wellness-oriented programs to encourage healthier and more active lifestyles. For more information, see the profiles on physical therapist assistants and aides and physicians and surgeons.