What Does a Physical Therapist Assistant Do? 9 Duties You May Not Expect

What Does a Physical Therpist Assistant Do

You’re ready for a career that not only provides for your family, but also impacts others and lets you get out from behind a desk. If you’ve always had a knack for taking care of and encouraging others, you could be a perfect fit for a physical therapist assistant career.

But what does a physical therapist assistant do? You’ve heard this job title before, but you don’t want to jump into a career unless you have a solid idea of what you’ll be doing day-in and day-out. Physical therapist assistants, or PTAs, team up with physical therapists to help patients regain their full range of motion after an injury or when an illness temporarily takes them out of the game.

Physical therapist assistant duties vary widely, including some surprising tasks you may not have expected. Read on to find out if these physical therapist assistant job duties sound like the makings of your new dream career.

What does a physical therapist assistant do?

PTAs work closely with a team of physical therapists, physical therapy aides and other PTAs to rehabilitate patients who are working to regain their full range of motion and strengthen injured muscle groups. They spend lots of time working one-on-one with patients, observing their progress and showing them new stretches and exercises to help get them back on track.

We used real-time job analysis software to examine more than 29,000 physical therapy assistant job postings from the past year.* The data helped us identify some of the top skills employers are seeking in PTA candidates. We combined this with government data to compile a list of common PTA duties.

While you probably have a general idea about what a career as a PTA might look like, you may be surprised to learn about some of these unexpected duties. Keep reading to gain a more complete understanding.

1. Observation

You might think a job that focuses on patients’ range of motion would require a lot of physical work, but PTAs spend much of their day carefully observing their patients, according to the US Department of Labor (DOL). They record careful notes about each patient’s progress so they can work together with a physical therapist to determine the next best step in their patient’s recovery.

2. Patient & family education

A patient’s treatment doesn’t end when they leave the physical therapy facility. PTAs are often responsible for making sure a patient and their family understands which exercises and stretches they need to do at home to continue their rehabilitation.* Patients and their families need a PTA who can explain exactly how the treatment plan works and answer any lingering questions they may have.

3. Therapeutic massage

PTAs use a wide range of techniques to help their patients regain typical range of motion, including therapeutic massage, according to the DOL. This special massage technique can help relieve pain, decrease muscle tension and increase blood flow, all of which are critical in the healing process.

4. Ultrasound therapy

The word ultrasound might bring to mind the routine imaging procedure that occurs during pregnancies, but that’s not the only way ultrasound is used in healthcare. Therapeutic ultrasound releases sound waves that can be used to increase blood flow, loosen tissues and reduce swelling. With so many therapeutic benefits, it’s no wonder this is one of the top skills employers are looking for in their PTAs.*

5. Prosthetics

Physical therapy may make you think of people with sports injuries, but amputees are another population that typically relies on physical therapy. Physical therapist assistants play an important role in rehabilitating amputees and teaching them to how to best utilize these prosthetic devices. These prosthetics can give patients new opportunities in life, but require careful rehabilitation and training plans to get patients functioning as close to 100 percent as is possible.

6. Communication

PTAs spend their entire day communicating with others, whether it’s explaining a treatment plan to a patient or reporting back to the physical therapist with the day’s reports and observations. PTAs need to be pros at actively listening and at explaining complicated medical terminology in a way that can be easily understood by patients. It’s not just about communicating technical rehabilitation details—PTAs do their fair share of “cheerleading” as patients push themselves toward progress. This encouragement may come easily for many; after all, it’s a pretty incredible feeling to see someone regain their mobility.

7. Treatment planning

Though PTAs don’t develop a patient’s treatment all on their own, they do have a say in the next steps of the rehabilitation process. According to our job analysis, PTAs with experience in treatment planning are in high demand in the physical therapy world.*

8. Home health

Being able to rehabilitate patients in their own homes is another desirable skill identified by our analysis.* Many physical therapy facilities offer in-home rehabilitation services to patients who are unable to drive to the clinic. This type of care is especially common for elderly patients who have undergone knee or hip surgery or who are recovering from a fall. This means being able to creatively adapt to potentially less-than-ideal rehabilitation spaces while still providing quality care.

9. Decision making

A PTA needs to be able to make wise decisions on the spot about a patient’s treatment. A patient could be injured further if they’re pushed beyond their limits during an exercise. On the other hand, a patient may not recover as quickly if they’re not given intense enough stretches or other therapies. It’s no surprise the DOL lists judgement and decision-making skills as vital for PTAs.

Intrigued by these job duties?

A physical therapist assistant’s job duties may seem routine to the untrained eye. But thanks to this breakdown, you know there’s more to the story of what a PTA does all day. Now that you know the real answer to “What does a physical therapist assistant do?”, you might be intrigued by these unexpected physical therapist assistant job duties.

If you could see yourself tackling these job duties in your everyday life, becoming a PTA might be your next career move. Find out if you’re a natural fit with these Signs You Should Consider Becoming a Physical Therapist Assistant.


*Burning-Glass.com (analysis of 29,139 job postings, April 1, 2016–March 31, 2017).

Ashley Brooks

Ashley is a freelance writer for Collegis education who writes student-focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen College. She believes in the power of words and knowledge and enjoys using both to encourage others on their learning journeys

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