Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA) & Physical Therapy Aide (PT Aide)

The United States Bureau of Employment and Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates the addition of almost 40,000 physical therapist assistant (PTA) and physical therapy aide (PT aide) jobs between 2018 and 2028. Jobs in physical therapy assistance are predicted to grow by over 25 percent, as the Baby Boomer generation in the United States ages and chronic conditions such as obesity and diabetes become more prevalent.

Physical therapy is the treatment of injuries, disorders, and other issues by using non-surgical methods, such as massage, heat treatment, exercises, assistive equipment (such as walkers), and more. Accordingly, PTAs and PT aides may work with patients of all ages and abilities. Some of their patients may be recovering from a work or sport-injury, while others may have a neurological disorder that impacts movement.

They typically work in an office, clinic, hospital, skilled nursing facility, or home health setting. Depending on the setting, some PTAs and PT aides may work in a setting that specializes in certain patients groups, such as children or athletes. Those interested in this field should demonstrate strong interpersonal skills, as they commonly interact one-on-one with patients, as well as compassion and attention to detail. Many PTAs and PT aides are on their feet for most of the day, so they should have dexterity and physical stamina.

PTAs and PT aides perform different functions to ensure quality care is provided to patients. PTAs have greater education and licensing requirements than physical therapist aides. Working under the supervision and direction of a physical therapist, PTAs work to provide treatment, rehabilitation, and preventive care to people of all ages.

They work closely with patients, monitoring and reporting their status and progress to the physical therapist over the course of their treatment. Care and treatment options may include exercises, hands-on therapy, and assistive equipment. Recovery plans range from short- to long-term care depending on the injury or illness.

All PTAs are required to obtain a high school diploma or GED and complete an associate degree from a PTA program accredited through the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). Coursework typically includes clinical pathology, biology, anatomy, physiology, and ethics, and an average of 16 weeks of full-time supervised clinical education to obtain hands-on experience.

Alternatively, PT aides perform indirect patient care by performing clerical duties, setting and cleaning up treatment areas, and moving patients. They gain experience through on-the-job training and are not required to get licensed or certified. PT aides typically have a high school diploma or GED. Working at PT aide is also considered a stepping stone to working as a physical therapist or PTA.

Read on to discover how to become a PTA, including education and licensure requirements, or pursue a career as a PT aide.

Fast Facts Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA) Physical Therapy Aide
Projected Jobs Created 26,700 11,300
Projected Job Growth 27% 23%
Low Salary $33,780 $20,040
Average Salary (Median) $58,040 $26,240
High Salary $79,810 $39,230
Entry-Level EDU Associate Degree High School Diploma/GED

Degree & Certification Programs

PT Aides

It takes an average of several months to become a PT aide for those who already have a high school diploma or GED. This includes the time to apply for jobs and receive any on-the-job training. There are no licensing or certification requirements. Those without a high school diploma or GED may take up to four years to complete their diploma or pass their GED examinations, depending on age and/or prior education.

PTAs

PTAs need an associate degree from a physical therapist assistant program accredited by the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA)’s Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). These two-year programs accept applications on an annual basis and provide coursework in physical therapy, general education, and clinical education. Depending on the school, the number of accepted students may range from 12 to 50 or more.

Admissions requirements are determined by individual schools, as there is no centralized application for PTA programs. Some schools may have a more selective admissions process and require a competitive, point-based process.

Those applying to a PTA program should always check with admissions offices for further information about requirements. However, most schools require one or more of the following:

  • High school diploma or GED
  • Minimum cumulative GPA
  • Completion of prerequisite coursework in science, math, and English
  • Submittal of personal statement or essay
  • Recommendations from past employers or teachers
  • Documented proof of observation of a clinical setting
  • Immunizations

Following is a sampling of accredited programs that train students to become licensed PTAs.

  • Miami Dade College, a four-year college located in Miami, Floria has an associate degree that PTA students can complete in five semesters, or just over two years. Notable for their focus on technology, Miami Dade uses an online learning management system, Blackboard, so students may rewatch on-campus lectures and access resources such as guides to laboratory skills. There is also a service-learning component, where students gain clinical experience while also serving the local community.
  • Cerritos College, a two-year college located in Cerritos, California that offers another associate degree that prospective PTAs can complete in two years. With a focus on preparing students for licensure, over two-thirds of graduates pass their licensure exam on the first try.
  • Northland Community and Technical College, a two-year technical school in East Grand Forks, Minnesota, provides an associate of applied science (AAS) degree that positions students for immediate entry into working as a PTA. This program provides a diverse curriculum that includes additional courses in medical coding, interpersonal skills, public speaking, and more.
  • Baker College – College of Health Science, a public four-year college with campuses throughout Michigan, offers an associate PTA degree that takes two years to complete. Providing coursework in areas such as human anatomy and physiology, psychology, communication, patient assessment, and pediatric management, the program notably includes three clinical placements.

Roughly three-fourths of PTA degree programs take place in a lab or classroom, where students may also pursue additional certifications such as first aid skills. According to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), students spend an average of 16 weeks gaining full-time, hands-on experience. Degree programs for PTAs do not offer specializations. Accordingly, those interested in gaining experience within a certain industry, such as skilled nursing facilities or sports, will want to select a degree program with curriculum and clinical education opportunities that fit that area.

Hybrid and Online Programs

PT Aides

There are no hybrid or online programs for PT aides, although they must have a high school diploma or GED. They are not required to obtain further post-secondary education or maintain any licenses or certifications.

PTAs

While there are no fully online PTA degree programs due to the need for in-person labs and clinical experiences, there are a number of hybrid options available. The programs profiled below offer a hybrid delivery for those looking to pursue a career as a PTA.

  • Jefferson State Community College, a two-year college with locations throughout Alabama offers a hybrid associate of applied science for PTAs looking to maximize flexibility while furthering their career. Students complete lecture courses online and then travel to the Shelby-Hoover campus in Birmingham, Alabama to complete laboratory courses, network with other students, and participate in clinical experiences.
  • San Juan College, a two-year college based in Farmington, New Mexico, offers a hybrid PTA program that provides online coursework completed over five semesters. Students then attend on-campus labs once a semester, allowing those already working or who have familial responsibilities to set a schedule that works for them.

Core & Elective Courses in Physical Therapy Assistance

PT Aides

While PT aides are not required to obtain any certifications or licenses, they can expect on-the-job training to prepare them for the following responsibilities:

  • Preparing treatment areas for patient use, including setting and cleaning up
  • Cleaning treatment areas and moving equipment to maintain functionality
  • Assist with patient intake and other clerical duties
  • Working with physical therapists and PTAs to observe and document patient progress and responses
  • Coordinating with physicians’ offices and hospital personnel
  • Transporting patients to and from treatment areas

Note that allowed job functions for PT aides may vary by state. Working as a PT aide is a common stepping stone into a career as a physical therapist or physical therapist assistant.

PTAs

While programs may differ by college and state, the two-year PTA program prepares students for the following responsibilities:

  • Observing patient status and progress before, during, and post-treatment
  • Noting and reporting patient status to the physical therapist
  • Helping patients do specific exercises and provide treatment as part of their plan of care
  • Providing patient care using manual treatments, such as stretching and massage
  • Using supportive equipment and devices, such as exercise balls, to help patients
  • Working with the patient and their friends and family on post-care activities and options

Below are some common PTA courses that an accredited program may offer:

  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Exercise physiology
  • Biomechanics
  • Kinesiology
  • Neuroscience
  • Clinical pathology
  • Behavioral sciences
  • Communication
  • Ethics and values

These courses are completed alongside clinical observations and rotations so students gain hands-on experience. Clinical experience typically accounts for 25 percent of each program. As PTAs undergo different education and training than physical therapists, it is not considered a stepping stone to becoming a physical therapist.

Accreditation of Physical Therapist Assistant Programs

PTA programs are accredited through the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE), which is recognized by the United States Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). Graduation from a CAPTE-accredited program is required to apply for state licensure to work as a physical therapist assistant. Note that licensure requirements differ by state.

There are no accreditation requirements that apply to PT aides.

Career Outlook & Salary - PTAs & PT Aides

As one of the country’s fastest growing careers, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicted the addition of 38,000 jobs nationally for PTAs and PT aides between 2018 and 2028—over a 25 percent increase. PTAs and PT aides typically work in offices, hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, or home healthcare settings that provide one-on-one care. There are over 148,200 PTAs and PT aides currently employed in the United States, as of May 2018.

PT Aides

PT aides had an annual average salary of $26,240 (BLS May 2018). PT aides working in government had the highest annual salary at $32,160, followed by those working in skilled nursing facilities, who had an annual salary of $31,040. Other industries include local, state, and private hospitals ($28,960); physicians’ offices ($27,260); and offices of physical, occupational and speech therapists, and audiologists ($24,830).

As of May 2018, the BLS reports the following annual salary data for PT aides:

  • 10th percentile: $20,040
  • 25th percentile: $22,690
  • 50th percentile (median): $26,240
  • 75th percentile: $31,570
  • 90th percentile: $39,230

According to the BLS, the highest paying states for PT aides are Alaska, Idaho, Minnesota, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

PTAs

According to the BLS, PTAs had an average annual salary of $58,040 in 2018. Note the average annual salary differs by industry. PTAs working in skilled nursing facilities have the highest average salary at $66,440, whereas those working in physicians' offices had the lowest average salary at $54,360. Average salaries in other settings include home healthcare services ($62,340); offices of physical, occupational and speech therapists, and audiologists ($56,760); and local, state, and private hospitals ($56,180).

As of May 2018, the BLS reports the following annual salary data for PTAs:

  • 10th percentile: $33,780
  • 25th percentile: $46,800
  • 50th percentile (median): $58,040
  • 75th percentile: $68,700
  • 90th percentile: $79,810

According to the same report, the highest paying states for PTAs are Texas, New Jersey, Connecticut, California, and Massachusetts.

Career Facts Physical Therapist Assistants Physical Therapy Aides
Related Careers Occupational therapy assistant, psychiatric technician, nursing assistant Medical assistant, nursing orderly, pharmacy technician
Common Job Titles PTAs, Assistant Aide
Technology & Equipment Treatment tables, ultrasound, resistance bands, electrical muscle stimulation, exercise bikes and balls, wheelchairs, crutches, walkers, bandages, strength and dexterity testers, scales, vital signs monitors, sensory evaluators, medical software, word processing software Treatment tables, wheelchairs, crutches, walkers, medical software, word processing software, cleaning supplies

PTA Licensing & Certification

Each state and territory in the United States requires PTAs to get licensed in the state they want to practice in. Those seeking licensure should apply and graduate from a CAPTE-accredited PTA degree program. They must also pass the National Physical Therapy Assistants Exam for PTAs, which is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy.

Additional requirements may include a background check, jurisprudence exam on state laws and practices, and proof of minimum age (typically 18). In addition, some states may require PTAs to take a certain number of continuing education courses or maintain certification in specific life skills, such as CPR. Always check with the appropriate state board for specific licensing requirements.

PT aides are not required to get licensed or maintain any certifications.

Bree Nicolello
Bree Nicolello Writer

Bree is an urban planner and freelance writer based in Seattle, WA. She has worked on land use and housing policy issues throughout the Pacific Northwest. She previously led Run Oregon Run, a nonprofit dedicated to helping Oregonians run for office and apply to boards and commissions. When not writing, she is lovingly tending to her cast iron pans.