The Difference between Physical Therapists, Assistants, and Aides

You might not know this, but there is actually more than one type of job available for people interested in physical therapy. There are a lot of similarities and also a few key differences. Where you can be employed, how much you make, and the duties you are responsible for all vary according to the position into which you are hired. Another key difference is how much and what type of education you need. That being said, if you work in the physical therapy industry in any capacity you will the opportunity to be around patients, help make their journey to recovery as easy as possible, and see their improvement. The three main jobs that you can have in the field are those of physical therapists, physical therapist assistants, and physical therapist aides.

Physical Therapists

Physical therapists are the lead member of a team of therapists, assistants, and aides. Most have gone to school for roughly six years to get their master’s degree, and some have gone on to receive a doctorate in physical therapy. The typical course is for students to spend four years at a college or university in an undergraduate program and then spend two years at either the same school or a different one obtaining their master’s. Physical therapists’ responsibilities include diagnosing their patients’ injuries and dysfunctions; setting up a treatment plan for patients that includes exercises, stretches, and goals; using a variety of techniques, including exercises, stretches, and hands-on methods like massage to treat patients; evaluating patients’ progress and making adjustments to the plan if necessary, and educating patients and their families about their injuries and proper treatment.

Physical Therapy Aides

Physical therapy aides assist patients in a much different way than PTs do. Instead of dealing directly with patients, they clean and maintain treatment areas and work in various administrative capacities. This might include answering phones, writing emails, making copies, dealing with insurance companies, keeping track of billing, and fielding questions from patients. To be a physical therapist aide you don’t need any formal education beyond a high school diploma. Most of the training is done on the job. It would be helpful, however, for you to have some knowledge of physical fitness, major muscle groups, or common injuries so you can best assist patients.

Physical Therapy Assistants

This position is a bit of a middle ground between physical therapists and aides. Because you have to have an associate’s degree in physical therapy assisting in order to fill this role, you have the benefit of being able to work directly with patients. In many ways your role will be similar to that of the PT, except you don’t diagnose patients or write treatment plans. Instead, your focus is more on observing patients and taking notes to give the PT, helping patients with exercises, using hands-on techniques like massage to treat patients, and educating patients and their families about their injuries and progress. Physical therapy assistants, on average, make around $50,000 a year.


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