The goal of physical therapy is to improve physical function in patients with pain or mobility challenges to affect the patient’s quality of life positively. You can make a significant difference in the lives of others in a rewarding profession. But, within the field there are two distinct roles; physical therapist, and physical therapist assistant. Both are excellent career choices, but they require different training.
What Does a Physical Therapist Assistant Do?
A Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA) is a healthcare professional who provides physical therapy services under the supervision of a licensed Physical Therapist (PT). As members of the allied health field, they help patients overcome illness or injury by improving functional mobility.
Job responsibilities vary by setting but typically include:
PTAs assess patients’ range of motion, strength, balance, and coordination. They gather subjective and objective data about their symptoms, functional limitations, and wellness goals to understand better, how their physical challenges affects their daily activities and independence.
PTAs carry out the PTs comprehensive plan of care that address specific long and short-term goals. They help determine the most appropriate treatment strategies and interventions based on patients’ impairments, pain levels, preferences, and responses to interventions.
PTAs educate patients and family caregivers about their treatment plans, ensuring that they understand how to implement the PT’s recommendations. They discuss proper body mechanics, pain management, assistive device use, and injury prevention, using written or visual materials to reinforce the instructions and guide patients in independent practice at home.
Documentation is a constant in healthcare. PTAs assist PTs with administrative duties, such as maintaining patient records, scheduling appointments, and ensuring that equipment and supplies are stocked and organized. They also assist with maintaining clean facilities.
What is the Difference between PT and PTA Training?
PTs and PTAs work in the same field, but their roles are very different. Training programs for PTs and PTAs are worlds apart in terms of focus, duration, accessibility, and coursework.
Key differences include:
Physical therapists are primary care providers requiring a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree, which takes up to eight years in college to complete.
In contrast, you can become a PTA in as few as two years with an associate degree; you will spend a fraction of the time in school, accruing less debt, and still work in the profession you love.
Admission into PT and PTA programs is highly selective, with some programs even having waitlists. Make sure to check each program’s requirements as they vary slightly from school to school.
PTs, as the supervising clinician, have a broader scope of practice than PTAs. They have the authority to make independent decisions regarding patient care, so training programs have an extensive, in-depth curriculum covering anatomy and physiology, biomechanics, kinesiology, neurology, pharmacology, differential diagnosis, and clinical reasoning.
PTA programs touch upon these topics but focus more on the hands-on training required to implement therapy programs, a plus for students who prefer spending time treating the patients and less time bogged down with documentation.
What Do You Learn During a PTA Program?
Associate degree programs provide a comprehensive education. Designed for students with little healthcare experience, courses include:
Students in this course learn how prefixes, suffixes and root words combine to form complex medical terms. The focus is on the terminology commonly used in symptoms, diagnoses, tests, procedures, and anatomical structures.
Intro to Physical Therapy
This course gives students a broad overview of the physical therapy profession and its contribution to healthcare. You will learn about:
The roots of physical therapy — the history of physical therapy and how it evolved to be a distinct branch of healthcare.
Evidence-based practice — the development of physical therapy treatments based on scientific evidence.
Patient-centered care — a treatment approach that acknowledges the diverse needs and interests of patients as individuals.
Professional ethics — the core values and guiding principles of physical therapy practice, including behavioral expectations.
Work environments — where PTAs work and their roles within collaborative, multidisciplinary settings.
Therapeutic communication is a method of connecting with patients in a holistic way. It is a set of techniques that enhance the outcome of patient-provider communication, as well as, professional inter-collaboration. Students explore:
Active listening — how to actively engage with patients to demonstrate interest, understanding and empathy.
Mirroring — paraphrasing the patient’s key points to confirm comprehension.
Clarification — asking questions to gather more information on ambiguous statements.
Non-verbal communication — using body language to communicate and convey empathy.
Conflict resolution — how to break down communication barriers that create conflict between patients and healthcare providers.
Graduates will be better equipped to communicate with physically and emotionally vulnerable patients.
Applied Functional Anatomy and Kinesiology
This course provides PTA students with a deep understanding of the musculoskeletal system and how it supports movement. This knowledge is crucial for conducting assessments and implementing treatments. Key concepts include:
The Skeletal System — the bones of the human body, including their classification, structure, and functions, and how they form articulating joints that enable movement.
The Muscular System — a look at muscle anatomy and function plus the study of major muscle groups and how they work together to produce coordinated movement.
Joint structure and function — the different types of joints, including synovial, cartilaginous, and fibrous joints, and their contribution to movement and stability.
Biomechanics — the study of internal and external forces and their effects on the body during movement. Concepts include leverage, stability, force, and torque.
Gait analysis — an examination of normal and pathological walking patterns, including the phases and components of the gait cycle.
Kinesiology — a deep dive into the study of human movement, combining anatomy, physiology, and physics to describe how muscles, bones and joints work together to produce coordinated movement.
Introduction to Assessment, Measurement and Documentation
This course covers the skills needed to assess patients and document findings. Topics include:
Assessment techniques — how to evaluate range of motion, muscle strength, joint mobility, balance, coordination, sensation, posture, and functional mobility. Students practice conducting these assessments and interpreting the results.
Measurements — the use of tools, such as goniometers, dynamometers, inclinometers, tape measures, and plumb lines, to measure muscle strength, balance, and range of motion.
Tests — common standardized tests to assess balance, posture, and muscle strength, such as manual muscle testing techniques, the Timed Up and Go (TUG) test, the Berg Balance Scale and functional reach assessments.
Vital signs — you will learn to take and interpret vital signs, including blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate, and oxygen saturation. Abnormal readings may influence physical therapy interventions.
Documentation — how to record measurements and assessment findings in a clear, organized, and standardized format.
Basic Patient Care
PTAs need a basic understanding of patient care to safely fulfill their responsibilities. This course covers:
Infection control — infection prevention and control measures, including standard precautions, hand hygiene, personal protective equipment (PPE) and the proper handling and disposal of contaminated materials.
Activities of Daily Living (ADLs) —how to assist patients with daily activities, such as bathing, grooming, dressing, toileting, and feeding.
Skin integrity — strategies for skin assessment and the prevention of pressure ulcers.
Patient positioning — how to properly position patients for comfort, safety, and therapeutic benefit.
Mobility assistance — how to use assistive devices, such as canes, walkers, and crutches, and how to provide support during transfers and ambulation to ensure patient safety and maximize independence.
Ergonomics — how proper body mechanics can prevent injury to both the patient and the PTA. You will learn to lift, transfer and position patients safely.
Pathology for the PTA
Pathology is the study of abnormal conditions. Here, you will learn about:
Pathophysiology — a closer look at how abnormal physiological changes, such as inflammation, tissue damage and impaired organ function, occur, develop and impact patient health and function.
Common pathological conditions — the common pathological conditions encountered in physical therapy practice, such as fractures, osteoarthritis, stroke, spinal cord injury, cardiopulmonary disorders, and other systemic diseases. You will learn about each condition’s medical management and how physical therapy helps.
Implications for physical therapy — how conditions affect the types of interventions provided.
This course covers the principles, techniques, and applications of therapeutic exercise in the context of physical therapy. Students investigate:
Exercise physiology — how the cardiovascular, respiratory, and muscular systems respond and adapt to exercise. You will learn about the FITT principle (Frequency, Intensity, Time, and Type) and how to progressively advance exercise programs to challenge and improve a patient’s physical abilities.
Therapeutic exercise techniques — the exercise techniques used in physical therapy practice, including range of motion, strengthening, proprioception, and balance exercises. Students become familiar with PT tools and equipment, such as resistance bands, weights, stability balls and transcutaneous electrical stimulation.
Patient safety — how to recognize signs of exercise intolerance or distress and implement appropriate safety measures and to properly guard patients.
Patient education — teaching patients to perform exercises correctly and safely while motivating them to stick to their programs.
Special populations — adapting exercise programs to meet the specific needs, capabilities, and goals of pediatric patients, seniors, athletes, and people with chronic medical conditions.
Neuromuscular and Orthopedic Conditions and Rehabilitation
Neuromuscular and orthopedic conditions make up a significant portion of physical therapy patients. These courses cover the most common diagnoses and rehabilitation interventions. You will study:
Orthopedic Conditions — conditions affecting the bone, muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Students learn how to treat injuries and provide post-surgical rehabilitation.
Neuromuscular disorders — treatments for common neurological conditions, including stroke, traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson’s disease, with an emphasis on neuromuscular re-education exercises, functional mobility training, pain management strategies, and gait retraining.
Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Physical Therapy
PTAs often work with people who are intolerant to exercise because of heart or lung conditions. This class delves into:
Cardiopulmonary pathophysiology — a more in-depth look at the pathophysiology and treatment of the common cardiovascular and pulmonary conditions encountered in physical therapy practice, such as myocardial infarction, congestive heart failure, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Cardiac rehabilitation — physical therapy plays a key role in cardiac rehabilitation programs. You will study the exercise protocols, risk stratification and lifestyle modifications that can help.
Pulmonary rehabilitation — How to improve the functional capacity and quality of life for people with respiratory conditions. Students learn about breathing techniques, airway clearance, pulmonary function testing and strategies for optimizing respiratory function.
Promotion of Health and Wellness
PTAs do more than help the sick. They empower them to stay well. Students in this course discuss:
Health promotion concepts — how physical, social, psychological, and environmental factors influence individual and community health.
Risk assessment and screening — how to identify risk factors for disease and injury using screening tools and fitness tests.
Lifestyle and behavior modification —how to help patients stay motivated and overcome barriers to behavioral change.
Fitness programming — promoting wellness by developing exercise programs tailored to individuals’ needs and goals.
Health education — methods for conveying health information, addressing cultural and linguistic considerations and engaging individuals in the learning process.
Community health — the role of PTAs in community health initiatives and policymaking.
Trends in Physical Therapy
In the healthcare field, both treatments and thinking change over time. This course emphasizes the need to stay abreast of advancements in all aspects of the physical therapy profession. Topics include:
Technological advancements — the latest in health innovation from telehealth and wearable devices to mobile applications and robotics in rehabilitation.
Cultural competence — strategies for providing culturally sensitive care, communicating with diverse populations, and addressing health disparities.
Ethical dilemmas — how to analyze ethical questions, consider professional responsibilities, and make informed decisions based on moral principles.
Emerging practice areas — new and evolving ways in which physical therapy is contributing to better health for all populations.
Professional development — strategies for growing your career by staying updated on the latest research, embracing continuing education courses, and engaging in professional organizations.
During the clinical practicums, PTA students apply their newfound skills in real-world clinical settings. You will work with patients and future colleagues under the guidance of experienced clinical instructors.
The culmination of your learning process, it is a valuable opportunity to integrate classroom learning with practical experience while developing the self-confidence you need to succeed as a PTA.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 24% increase in demand for PTAs through 2031; few fields have that much potential. With the right training and lots of hard work, an associate degree is just two years away.
Want to Learn More?
Physical Therapist Assistant, Associate of Science Degree
The Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA) program will provide you with the knowledge and skills necessary to perform as a competent, safe, and ethical PTA. You will learn and apply techniques that will improve mobility, relieve pain, and prevent or limit permanent physical disabilities to patients in clinical settings. Graduates from this program will be eligible to take their national licensure exam. FNU grants an Associate of Science upon completion.
Physical Therapist Assistant, Bachelor of Science Degree
The Bachelor of Science Degree in Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA) is designed to prepare you for additional career opportunities and advancement within the profession. PTAs currently licensed and working can further their associate degree to a bachelor’s level and follow a program track that best fits their career aspirations.
If you are interested in becoming a physical therapist assistant, let Florida National University answer any questions you may have. Contact us today to learn more about our PTA programs.