If you want to help people, a career in physical therapy may be right for you. Physical therapy is a highly rewarding career with ample opportunity to grow. There are also many job positions involved with physical therapy; two of the most essential positions are physical therapist assistants and physical therapy aide.

While the two may seem the same at first glance, they are quite different from one another. Knowing the differences can help you choose the right career to fit your needs, talents, and professional goals.

Also known as physiotherapy, physical therapy (PT) helps people gain or regain mobility lost to disease, an injury, or a deformity. Instead of medications or surgery, physical therapy professionals use physical methods, such as exercise, massage, or heat treatments to help patients improve mobility.

Physical Therapist Assistant and Physical Therapy Aide Job Descriptions

What do physical therapist assistants do?

A physical therapist assistant (PTA) primarily works with patients to help them achieve their therapy goals. PTAs work closely with physical therapists to ensure that patients progress through their care plan. They work closely under the supervision of a physical therapist to lead patients through various therapeutic exercises, such as stretches and strength-building exercises. They also use massage and special equipment to help patients gain mobility.

Most physical therapist assistants work in hospitals or in clinics specializing in PT. Some work in assisted living communities or in patients’ homes as part of home healthcare.

Regardless of where they work, physical therapist assistants are on their feet most of the day, so the job is attractive to people who like to stay active. PT aides, on the other hand, often sit for long periods to make phone calls and perform other tasks.

What do physical therapy aides do?

Physical therapy aides (PT aides) also work in hospitals and clinics to help physical therapists deliver quality care to patients, but PT aides focus more on keeping clinics and hospitals organized than working directly with patients.

PT aides typically handle basic clerical duties, such as scheduling appointments, setting up equipment, cleaning, and helping patients get from one area of the clinic to another. Their work ensures that the physical therapy environment clean, safe, and comfortable for patients. These valuable workers do not provide direct patient care or perform manual skills.

Salary for Physical Therapist Assistants and Physical Therapy Aides

Income is important to any worker, of course, and salary is an important factor when it comes to deciding between the two job titles. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lists average wages for various job descriptions, including PTAs and PT aides.

According to BLS, the median annual wage for physical therapist assistants was $61,180 in 2021. The lowest 10 percent of PTAs earned less than $37,280 that year, while the top 10 percent brought home more than $80,170. PTAs working in home health care services were the top earners at $76,600, and those working in doctor offices earned $58,190.

The median annual wage for PT aides was $29,200 in 2021. The lowest 10 percent were paid $22,140 that year, and the highest 10 percent received more than $37,920. Those working in skilled nursing care communities were paid the most, at $37,090, while PT aides working in physical therapy offices earned the least at 28,290.

Job Outlook for PTAs and PT Aides

Employment for PTAs and PT aides will likely grow. BLS expects the overall employment of PTAs and PT aides to grow by 24 percent from 2021 to 2031, which is much faster than the job growth for all occupations.

There were 44,200 PT aid jobs in the United States in 2021, and there will likely be 52,600 PT aide positions in 2031. The number of PTA positions will likely grow from 96,500 to 122,100 during that decade.

BLS predicts that there will be about 25,000 job openings for PTAs and PT aides each year from 2021 to 2031. Many of these job openings are due to attrition, as workers transfer to another position or leave the workforce altogether, such as to retire.

Demand for PTAs and PT aides will grow as the U.S. population ages. Older adults are staying active later in life, compared to previous generations, and physical therapy helps the aging population remain active. Aging adults are also more likely to develop certain chronic conditions that can affect mobility, such as arthritis and obesity; PTAs and PT aides can also help improve mobility in patients with these age-related mobility issues.

Advances in medical technology should also extend the lives of trauma victims and newborns with birth defects. This growing population will add to the already high demand for physical therapy, PTAs and PT aides.

PTA and PT Aide Education Requirements

As PTAs and PT aides do different jobs, each has different education requirements. In many cases, high school graduates can get on-the-job training to become a PT aide. This makes PT aide an accessible career option for anyone who wants to help people without having to take classes.

PTA positions, on the other hand, require a formal education. All states in the U.S. require PTAs to have an associate degree from an accredited program before they can provide patient care. These programs give students a deeper knowledge of human anatomy and physiology, along with information about exercise science. PTA programs also give students hands-on clinical experience so that they are fully prepared and ready to provide care to patients on their first day working in the field.

PTA classes cover a wide range of topics, including:

  • Medical terminology
  • Anatomy & physiology
  • Biomechanics
  • PTA techniques
  • Kinesiology
  • Pathophysiology
  • Neuroscience
  • Evidence-based practices
  • Clinical biomechanics for the upper and lower extremities
  • Cardiopulmonary path and intervention
  • Physical therapy for special populations
  • Physical therapy modalities

Many PTA programs take two years to complete. Some colleges offer accelerated programs that provide the same great education in as little as 19 months. Many institutions offer blended studies that require students to take some classes on site but offer other classes online.

Learn more information on how to become a physical therapist assistant.