What Does a Physical Therapist Assistant Do?

by Angela Stevens on February 8, 2010

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I am what some might call slightly-to-moderately accident prone. Okay, I admit it. I have had to go through numerous bouts of physical therapy for various accidents. It is not like I’m reckless, far from it actually. I am safety girl. I wear my seatbelt, look both ways when I cross the street… heck, I don’t even speed. But I swear I’m an accident magnet.

Physical therapy assistant helps works with patient's knee.

Which brings me back to physical therapy. I’ve never been to the same clinic twice, but I have noticed there are always physical therapy assistants floating around – often helping me, because I obviously need the help. At first I was a bit miffed that I wasn’t always getting the top dog physical therapist, but I eventually realized that a physical therapy assistant was pretty darn useful, too. So, what does a physical therapy assistant do?

First, physical therapy assistants do work directly under the supervision of a physical therapist. They are not the ones evaluating injuries or designing treatment. This means they are not usually the first person the patient deals with, as it is important for the therapist to both evaluate needs and formulate a treatment plan. However, the physical therapy assistant is able to carry out many of the tasks deemed necessary by the therapist. For example, I have had physical therapy assistants do everything from making sure I was performing my exercises correctly to performing therapeutic massages. They monitored how well I did during my session, documented it, and let the therapist know if I was right on course or if I was being a big baby about my treatment. No reason to get into the big baby bit, really. I will just say it is really hard to walk after having a third degree sprain. Okay, I might be a big baby, and I might feel just a tiny bit sorry for that particular assistant.

How do they learn to do what they do? Most physical therapy assistants have at least an associate’s degree or have graduated from an accredited program. Some programs are more extensive than others but most teach basic skills as well as offer clinical experience. Of course, once in a working environment, the assistant will learn even more from the physical therapist(s) he or she is assigned to. Most therapists have their own style and tend to shape their assistants into similar molds. This explains why some of the assistants I have worked with, or rather who worked on me, were like fairy godmothers and others were more like drill sergeants.

All in all, the role of a physical therapy assistant is to assist the physical therapist in the care of the patient. Offering the patient support and tough love as necessary in order to make sure the patient is able to regain maximum use of her ankle, or other damaged part, as soon as possible.

Just out of curiosity, if you are a physical therapy assistant, do you prefer the sweet loveable big baby patient or the hardcore make it hurt until I’m better patient?


{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

dee 02.27.10 at 11:05 am

I prefer the type of patient that does his or her home exercise program….most dont and then whine that i’m to hard on them….even though i warn them up front that “its not going to get any easier in here”. Those are usually the big babies. The hardcore make it hurt patients end up hurting themselves! and on a side note… We are Physical Therapist Assistant.

Angela Stevens 03.01.10 at 1:08 pm

Thanks Dee! I appreciate your feedback and insight, and I’ve also updated the title of this post.

Teresa 03.15.10 at 6:57 pm

I’m looking into PTA school–& I’m wondering what made you want to become a therapist??

Wayne 03.19.10 at 1:44 pm

Teresa, in my experience many get into the field due to some type of personal connection. Either a friend or family member is a therapist or they have had a personal experience where they have gone through therapy themselves. I know my son is pursing a PTA degree because he has been through several therapy sessions from skateboard accidents.

ElizabethK 01.10.12 at 3:17 pm

What does a big animal Physical Therapist wear in their profession?
I am wondering because my daughter is having career day at her school.

Lucien 12.20.15 at 7:46 pm

I have my DPT and went to University at Buffalo. They have a great program basuece you start your undergraduate degree in Exercise Science. You will be assigned a counsellor to tell you what classes you need to take in order to achieve your goals. You put in 3 years of exercise science classes/core foundation classes and then apply to the Physical Therapy program at the end of your 3rd year. You are then either accepted or rejected. That all depends on how well you do on in your Exercise Science classes. They accept 42 students each year. If you get above a 3.5 gpa (in your ES classes) you will be granted an interview. If your interview goes well you will probably be accepted. Basically UB makes it very easy. It is a 6 year program and you will graduate with a clinical Doctorate.

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