What is a Physical Therapist?

At some point in your life you have heard of a physical therapist.  Likely, either you, a family member, or a close friend has needed physical therapy care.  Those encounters bring up memories of pain, alleviation of pain, exercises, massage, electrical stimulation, and your dreaded “home program”.  For many, the physical therapy experience is positive and hopefully you come away with a better understanding of why you are in pain.  In most settings, physical therapists can treat a patient for more time than other professions allowing a bond to develop that can be mutually rewarding.

The reality is that many professions can provide the same care as noted above.  Many other medical professionals can provide:

  • Alleviation of pain
  • Exercise prescription
  • Massage
  • Electrical Stimulation
  • Ultrasound
  • Medical Education
  • Independent Programs


These above services can be linked to chiropractors, massage therapists, exercise physiologists, acupuncturists, athletic trainers, and personal trainers.  Even some personal trainers use the designation “PT” after their name creating even more confusion since physical therapists use the same PT letters for professional designation!

So this begs the question, “What is a physical therapist?”  What do physical therapists do that no other profession is capable of providing at the same detail or knowledge base?  What service can physical therapists claim expert status over?  Where do physical therapists fit in the healthcare model?

In my 8 years of clinical physical therapy practice in Los Gatos and San Jose, I have met very few people who can clearly state what a physical therapist is and what makes them an expert.  I love being a physical therapist and I know it can provide tremendous value to patients and clients.

Its time people know what physical therapists really do!

The Physical Therapy Profession

The profession of physical therapy has burst into mainstream medicine over the last 20-30 years.  Although the profession itself has been around since around 1921, it has grown under the radar of everyday healthcare practice.  Most people would not have heard about a physical therapist unless they themselves or a close relative or friend needed care. 

Until the last 5 years, access to physical therapy services has been limited due to the necessity of a physician referral.  Since patients were unable to attend physical therapy without first seeing their doctor, it would be unlikely to even see any marketing for physical therapy.  Most marketing done by physical therapists are directed towards the doctors since they provide the referral for care.  Most states today; however, now allow direct access to physical therapy making the path to treatment more streamlined and less time consuming.  It is likely that you will soon see advertisements for physical therapy.  

So, physical therapy being a relatively new profession, with limited exposure by marketing, keeps the public in the dark about physical therapy.  It is no wonder that physical therapists have difficulty with creating awareness, branding, and community engagement.

As medicine changes, and preventative care becomes more vital from a health and cost standpoint, the physical therapy profession is coming into view at a key moment in healthcare innovation. In the United States, according to the bureau of labor statistics, there are approximately 200,000 physical therapists.  As a comparison there are 29,830 chiropractors, and 132,000 massage therapists.  This was a shocking fact for me since there are more physical therapists than chiropractors and massage therapists combined yet there is less awareness of the physical therapy profession. 

Physical Therapist Education

Like the profession itself, physical therapy education has continuously grown over the last 20 years.  Previously, during the 1950’s the base education needed to practice physical therapy was a bachelor’s degree.  This transformed into needing a Master’s degree during the 80’s and 90’s.  Today physical therapists complete a total of 6-7 years of education and require a Doctorate degree to practice physical therapy.  During undergraduate and graduate school, physical therapists take courses in:

  • Pathology
  • Anatomy
  • Neuroscience
  • Kinesiology
  • Physics
  • Microbiology
  • Biomechanics
  • Physiology
  • Cardiopulmonary science
  • Exercise Physiology
  • Psychology



As you can see the education is diverse and encompasses the full breath of human function related to health and movement.   Frequently, in clinical practice, I hear the question, “So what did you study in school?”  This question is always surprising.  I don’t believe anyone would ask a massage therapist what they studied in school or an acupuncturist what they studied in school.  This scenario is a clear example of the publics poor understanding of what a physical therapist is.

"So PT stands for personal trainer?"

As noted above, due to similar abbreviations (both “PT”) I can understand the confusion.  To clarify, a personal trainer does not need formal education to provide their services.  Most employers of personal trainers require a personal training certification which usually entails a weekend test only.  So although the letters they use may be similar the education is vastly different.

We have clarified the history of the physical therapy profession and their education but the question still remains.

What is a physical therapist?

The Physical Therapist of Today Physical therapists are health care professionals who maintain, restore, and improve movement, activity, and health enabling an individual to have optimal functioning and quality of life, while ensuring patient safety and applying evidence to provide efficient and effective care.

-American Physical Therapy Association

Physical therapists are experts in movement.  Physical therapists are uniquely skilled at analyzing movement in order to improve function and health.  Movement is essential to optimal living and quality of life.  The absence of movement, either from injury, pain, or disease, limits and burdens the individual’s ability to contribute and participate in society.  We need movement to manipulate and interact with our environment. The truth is that very few people, physical therapists included, can succinctly state that a physical therapist is an expert in maintaining, restoring, and improving movement, activity, and health for optimal functioning.  Most of the time physical therapists describe their profession based on the specific skills they provide.  You may here things like,

  • Physical therapists are manual therapy experts
  • Physical therapists are exercise specialists
  • Physical therapists help decrease pain
  • Physical therapists help people recover from injury

These statements are all true but again they can be used to describe many other health professions.  The greatest distinguishing skill that physical therapists provide with more detail and precision than any other profession is movement assessment, intervention, and restoration.  That is the ultimate goal right.  Restoring quality of life through movement is what makes physical therapists stand out. Many people can help decrease pain, provide hands on care, and prescribe exercise.  Physical therapists not only provide those services but they possess the unique knowledge and training to ensure proper movement is restored to limit future injury and improve performance.

Physical therapists seek to optimize the “movement system” as the main foundation to restore functional movement.

Movement System: Compromises the anatomic structures and physiologic functions that interact to move the body or its component parts.

Human movement is complex and requires precision analysis by professionals who can highlight abnormal movement.  To further define how physical therapists are experts in movement the APTA states:

  • Physical therapists provide a unique perspective on purposeful, precise, and efficient movement across the lifespan based upon the synthesis of their distinctive knowledge of the movement system and expertise in mobility and locomotion.

  • Physical therapists examine and evaluate the movement system (including diagnosis and prognosis) to provide a customized and integrated plan of care to achieve the individual's goal-directed outcomes.

  • Physical therapists maximize an individual's ability to engage with and respond to his or her environment using movement-related interventions to optimize functional capacity and performance.

Physical therapists use multiple forms of biofeedback in order to restore optimal movement

Seek Treatment by Experts in Movement

We need movement to function and live a life to the fullest.  We need proper pain free movement for walking, running, rolling in bed, getting out of a chair, using a wheelchair, pushing a stroller, turning our head, playing a sport, lifting weights, feeding a baby, and many other of life’s actions.   When we are in pain we seek immediate relief.  The absence of pain is not identical to optimal function.  Although our immediate attention is on pain relief our long term goal is on restoration of function to do the activities we like to do.  At the end of pain is the need to move and experience life.

Physical therapists are the experts in restoring optimal pain free movement.  Physical therapists are educated to evaluate and diagnose the impairments the underlie movement dysfunction.  They find the root cause of the issue and highlight compensatory strategies that are limiting optimal movement.  Their knowledge of the human movement system allows development of an individualized plan of care to meet the goals of each client.

The goal of physical therapy is to provide education, training, and intervention to make each patient an expert in the care of their body through proper movement.

The next time you have pain, or wish to improve your overall health and function, you should seek care by an expert in restoring health through movement.  At Competitive EDGE Physical Therapy we are on the forefront of "new age" physical therapy and motion analysis.  Our movement based approach is mixed in with skilled hands-on physical therapy to alleviate pain and improve function.

If you live in the Bay Area, and you have questions about physical therapy, or would like to inquire about a FREE 20 minute "taster" session with a physical therapist please call 408-784-7167 or email Kevin@compedgept.com\

Written by:
Kevin Vandi DPT, OCS, CSCS
Physical Therapist San Jose-Los Gatos-Campbell-Almaden