Are you interested in becoming a physical therapist (PT), and want to know what path to choose? There are over 25 types of physical therapists out there. They’re working in all sorts of settings, treating all sorts of patients and doing all types of work.
In the past, physical therapy jobs were limited to a few settings—and almost all of the available jobs were in clinical settings. Now, there are more PT jobs in different settings than ever, both clinical and non-clinical in nature!
In this article, we’ll be giving a brief overview of each of the many types of physical therapy jobs that exist, so you can be better informed. There’s so much to explore for each type of physical therapist, so hopefully this will give you a great jumping off point to do more research on your preferred path!
Without further ado, let’s get started!
Table of contents
- 1. Inpatient Rehab (IRF/ARU) Physical Therapist
- 2. ICU Physical Therapist
- 3. Animal PT
- 4. Long-term Acute Care (LTAC) PT
- 5. Emergency Department Physical Therapist
- 6. Correctional Facility/Prison PT
- 7. Adult Day Care Physical Therapist
- 8. Research PT
- 9. School Physical Therapist
- 10. Skilled Nursing Facility (SNF) PT
- 11. Home Health Physical Therapist
- 12. Wound Care PT
- 13. Acute Physical Therapist
- 14. Government/Military Physical Therapist
- 15. Cardiopulmonary PT
- 16. Oncology PT
- 17. Travel Physical Therapist
- 18. Pelvic Health PT
- 19. Vestibular Rehabilitation PT
- 20. Pediatric Physical Therapist
- 21. Neurological Physical Therapist
- 22. Sports PT
- 23. Orthopedic Physical Therapist
- 24. Geriatric Physical Therapist
- 25. Physical Therapy Consultant
- BONUS: Non-Clinical Physical Therapist
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1. Inpatient Rehab (IRF/ARU) Physical Therapist
Some PTs have been known to call this “true physical therapy.” While there’s no “real physical therapy,” inpatient rehab is what people often think of when they think of PT. Inpatient rehab facilities (IRFs) — or acute rehab facilities (ARUs) as they are sometimes called — are where patients go for intensive rehab. Think patients who were in traumatic accidents or suffered major strokes or traumatic brain injuries. These patients hit a point where they’re stabilized medically, but they need to relearn how to function.
2. ICU Physical Therapist
Works in the intensive care unit of an acute care facility or LTACH facility. You can work with all types in these roles, meaning all ages and diagnoses. One might see intense post-surgical cases, trauma cases, or acute CVAs (strokes). You can even work with babies in the neonatal ICU (NICU). ICU physical therapy typically requires additional training and mentorship to ensure fragile patients are safely treated.
3. Animal PT
This is one of the types of physical therapists that is often overlooked. Love dogs or cats? Wish you could spend more time using your PT knowledge on animals instead of humans? There’s a growing movement for PTs to get more involved with canine rehab and feline rehab. Unfortunately, practice acts often require that therapists work under veterinary supervision. Some states are more lax than others about how much independence this type of physical therapist has.
4. Long-term Acute Care (LTAC) PT
When someone is not appropriate for a longer acute-care hospital stay, they need to be discharged. They will often go to a SNF or home with home health or outpatient physical therapy, but if their medical needs are too acute, they’ll go to an LTAC facility. There, they will receive acute medical treatments with a longer expected length of stay, compared to a typical hospital. They will still get rehab treatment, but it won’t be as intensive as inpatient rehab (IRF/ARU) or even SNF in most cases.
5. Emergency Department Physical Therapist
Works to help triage cases to determine whether additional PT is needed and, if so, in which setting it would be best provided. Does everything from crutch training for ankle sprains to doing neuro screens to determine severity from strokes or traumatic brain injuries.
6. Correctional Facility/Prison PT
Many physical therapists work in correctional facilities. Some even leave the clinical part behind to work as corrections officers. Even if you stay in direct patient care, these types of physical therapists usually command a high salary and have somewhat flexible hours. While this type of work isn’t exactly a type of specialty, it takes a special type of person to thrive in this environment. If you’re confident and poised, you might really enjoy working with this underserved population.
7. Adult Day Care Physical Therapist
Adult day care facilities exist in some states, and they’re pretty cool! These are community-based, supervised programs that help cognitively impaired adults and seniors get socialization and mobility outside of the home while their caregivers are unavailable. In some ways, adult day care is like day care for kids, but since the clients are older adults, many can benefit from rehab. Physical therapists are often employed in these programs to help these clients address their functional impairments while they’re at the day care centers.
8. Research PT
This type of work crosses over into the non-clinical category, but many research physical therapists do still practice clinically. If you enjoy physical therapy, but also wish to elevate the profession by promoting evidence-backed interventions, research might be for you! Some of these types of physical therapists do hybrid clinical/research roles, while others work entirely in research.
9. School Physical Therapist
School-based physical therapy is incredibly popular. Not only does it pay well, you get holidays and summer breaks! Plus, you get to play with kids for much of your day, if that’s your idea of fun. 🙂 School PTs provide intervention to disabled students during the standard school day. These roles tend to have quite a bit of interdisciplinary collaboration and teamwork among other clinicians, so if working with littles and working on a team sounds your jam, you might love this type of work!
10. Skilled Nursing Facility (SNF) PT
Love working with seniors? Have a soft spot for those who need physical intervention—but might not recover as quickly as other patients? Skilled nursing facilities (SNFs) employ physical therapists to help longer-term or more physically compromised patients regain function. Some patients in these facilities are there for the long haul, and your job will be to keep them from declining physically. Other patients are there for shorter-term rehab, but they’re not quite appropriate for the intensive rehab that is provided at an inpatient rehab facility (IRF). SNFs are known to pay better than many other settings, too!
11. Home Health Physical Therapist
Home health physical therapists deliver PT interventions in patients’ homes. These roles involve quite a bit of driving and paperwork, but if you don’t mind either of those things, you might really enjoy this type of work! Seeing patients in their own homes enables you to create functional interventions that are meaningful to them in their daily lives and routines. Another benefit is the pay for these types of physical therapists tends to be better than other settings!
12. Wound Care PT
Think only nurses can treat complex wounds? Think again! Physical therapists (and physical therapist assistants) can provide wound care for patients, even specializing in this type of care! Not only is this niche/specialty type of work uniquely fulfilling, there are also lots of cool non-clinical roles in sales and business development for the manufacturers of wound-care products. So, if you see yourself moving into sales someday, you might want to get some experience in wound care! If you’re squeamish, you might not enjoy this type of work, though, so do some shadowing before you make the decision whether you’d like to pursue wound care.
13. Acute Physical Therapist
Acute physical therapists work in hospitals. They will see all sorts of patients, from people with traumatic brain injuries, to folks who have become deconditioned after lengthy illnesses. This type of work tends to be pretty flexible. Many acute therapists can arrive and leave when they’d like, within reason. As long as you see the patients you’re assigned in a given day, you can somewhat make your own schedule. Acute therapists tend to be very flexible and adaptable, as patients might not be medically stable for therapy during a given day. So, new patients might be assigned, or the therapist might be sent to another floor or rehab unit.
14. Government/Military Physical Therapist
Did you know physical therapists can work for the military? They sure can! Not only can PTs work in active duty, they can also hold military reserve jobs—both clinical and non-clinical! Military PTs have a wider scope of practice in many ways. They can prescribe certain medications and order some types of imaging as indicated. If you feel limited by the scope of practice in civilian care and wish to work more as a type of physician extender, you might enjoy working as a military physical therapist!
15. Cardiopulmonary PT
Cardiopulmonary physical therapists are devoted to working with patients who have heart or lung disorders. The work these types of physical therapists do focuses on improving heart and lung health through carefully graded and measured physical interventions. You can become a board-certified cardiopulm physical therapist, which makes this niche more formalized and exciting in some ways. If you tend to enjoy numbers, measurements, and carefully graded programs, you might enjoy the detail-oriented nature of this type of work.
16. Oncology PT
Oncology physical therapists work in a very special niche, serving patients with cancer. These clients have specific needs and can be very fragile. Many interventions PTs typically use are contraindicated with this patient population. Oncology PTs work to maximize patients’ wellness and functional mobility across the disease span. This is another niche where you can become formally board certified, and you’ll find many non-clinical job opportunities when you’ve worked with oncology patients.
17. Travel Physical Therapist
Do you love to travel? Do you want to make as much money as possible as a physical therapist? Travel physical therapy is a great option for adventurous clinicians who love variety. These roles place PTs into short-term contracts (usually 12 weeks long) across the country, and even the globe! You can work in pretty much any setting as a travel PT, but the most common ones include skilled nursing facilities (SNFs), acute care, and home health. Typically, the more “desirable” a location is, the more competitive the roles are—so you might not make top dollar if you’re dreaming of being a PT in Hawaii. However, if you’re willing to work in less desirable locations, you will generally make more money and have more overall bargaining power in these roles.
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18. Pelvic Health PT
Pelvic health physical therapists work to improve the function of people’s pelvic floors. While most people think of women’s health, this type of care can also include men’s health and even children’s health. These types of physical therapists will treat everything from urinary and faecal incontinence to chronic constipation and painful intercourse.
19. Vestibular Rehabilitation PT
Vestibular physical therapists work with patients who have issues with their vestibular systems. In other words, they’re dizzy. Or they have poor balance. The vestibular system is complex, and diagnosing an issue takes a careful and astute clinician. These patients can feel desperately unwell, and PT can quite truly be the answer to their prayers. However, an untrained PT can inadvertently make things worse. While not formally considered a specialty, there are quite a few courses out there that can improve your skills and confidence with this patient population. We featured a vestibular physical therapist in our spotlight series here!
20. Pediatric Physical Therapist
Love working with kids? Pediatric physical therapists spend their days helping children improve their functional independence. As a pediatric PT, you can work in schools, in patients’ homes (often called early intervention PT), or in clinics. You can also work in hospitals, everywhere from general acute pediatric units to pediatric and neonatal ICUs to burn units. You can get a specialized board certification in pediatric PT.
21. Neurological Physical Therapist
Neurological physical therapists work with patients who have have suffered some illness or injury that created damage to the neurological system. Commonly, neuro PTs will see patients who have suffered strokes (also called cerebrovascular accidents or CVAs), TBIs (traumatic brain injuries), or progressive neurological disorders like multiple sclerosis (MS) or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Neuro PTs typically work on retraining the brain to improve communication with the nervous system, as neural plasticity does enable many patients to make profound recoveries, even after extremely debilitating functional loss. You can specialize as a neuro PT, getting an NCS after your name.
22. Sports PT
What’s up, athlete!? If you love playing sports, being around athletes, or the sweet smell of sweaty socks, listen up! Hanging out in locker rooms isn’t just for jocks and meatheads — you can work there when you’re a PT! Ok, you won’t usually actually work in locker rooms, unless you are lucky enough to snag a role working with a sports team. Most sports PTs will work in outpatient clinics, primarily treating orthopedic injuries that resulted from sports mishaps. The nice thing about sports PT is that your patients are typically active and motivated. The not-so-nice thing about this population is that it’s VERY hard to get them to take much-needed rest time (even when it’s necessary for healing to take place)!
23. Orthopedic Physical Therapist
Orthopedic physical therapists treat musculoskeletal injuries. These types of physical therapists will typically work in an outpatient clinic (either privately run or attached to a hospital)—but some PTs will do “mobile outpatient” work in patients’ homes. Patients will present with all kinds of injuries, from lower back pain (acute or chronic) to knee arthritis to rotator cuff tears in the shoulder. Outpatient ortho, as it’s sometimes called, tends to be very fast-paced, and you’ll typically see back-to-back patients. The good thing is that days go quickly! The not-so-good thing is that it can be hard to find time to complete your documentation or take pee breaks! You can get a formalized specialization in orthopedics.
24. Geriatric Physical Therapist
Geriatric physical therapists work with, you guessed it, older adults! You can specialize formally in this type of work, and a GCS (geriatric certified specialist) can work in all sorts of settings. From skilled nursing facilities (SNFs) to home health, and from long-term care facilities (LTACs) to adult day cares, there are always facilities who value a physical therapist with specialized knowledge about seniors.
25. Physical Therapy Consultant
Physical therapy consultant roles are, frankly, all over the map! Sometimes, a normal physical therapy role will be fancily called “physical therapist consultant” to make you feel special. However, a true PT consulting role looks a different from standard patient care. You can consult for all sorts of companies. From insurance companies to rehab technology companies, all sorts of health-related businesses can benefit from the unique insight of a skilled physical therapist. Even if you’re a new grad, you can still work as a PT consultant! And you can work as a solution consultant at Deloitte if you have an MBA!
BONUS: Non-Clinical Physical Therapist
Physical therapists often find they’d like to leave patient care altogether to explore non-clinical roles. You can work in anything from public health to utilization review, and from rehab technology to client success. Or maybe you want to be a clinical liaison. There are tons of non-clinical career options for physical therapists!