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Physical Therapists and Physical Therapist Assistants: What Difference the ‘A’ Makes

physical therapist assistants

By Courtney Hixson, LPTA

Physical Therapists and Physical Therapist Assistants: what difference does that ‘A’ make?  I hear patients say this a lot in our clinic: ‘My physical therapist, Courtney…”  Yes, there is some truth to this statement.  As a Physical Therapist Assistant, I am a therapist but I am not a Physical Therapist.  So what is the difference between a Physical Therapist and a Physical Therapist Assistant and what difference does the ‘A’ make?

Let’s start by giving a clearer picture of what a Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA) is.  I had to go to college to train as a PT.  Once I graduated with my degree, I had to pass a national exam to be certified and obtain my license as a Physical Therapist Assistant.  I am not an aide.  I have training and am skilled in providing care to my patients.  As a PTA, I work under the supervision and direction of all the Physical Therapists (PTs) at LSTC.  I implement the plan of care our PTs establish for their patients and I am trained to perform manual therapy on all patients.  I direct the patients in their exercises and stretches during their sessions, correct their form if need be, and make notes about how the patients are doing with their specific treatment.  If I feel the patient needs some movement, activities, or exercises modified, I can make those changes.  The only thing I cannot do is evaluate the patient and establish their initial plan of care.  I do however still assess you at each visit through questioning; hands on techniques and observation so I can work with the PT to ensure you have the best possible care.  We all work as a team and are in constant communication with each other to ensure that we are providing the best care possible with a treatment plan that is tailored to the each patient’s needs.

When a patient comes into LSTC for physical therapy for the first time, they will see a PT for an evaluation.  From the evaluation, the PT will develop a Plan of Care based on the patient’s specific needs.  This is the direction that all PTs and PTAs will take to treat the patient so they can reach their goals.  It is based on the diagnosis or condition, the patient’s medical history, functional pain, and what their range of motion is using that particular body part.  It is also based on the patient’s personal goals.  This information is relayed to me, the PTA, so that when the patient comes in for their next visit, I can treat them based on their prescribed plan of care.  I have the training and education to decide exercises and modify them based off the information I get each time the patient comes in.

What I do each day at LSTC sounds pretty identical to what our PTs do, right?  Here is one big difference though.  Let’s say a patient is coming to us to be treated for lower back pain but then one day they come in complaining of shoulder pain too.  As a PTA, I am not able to change their prescribed plan of care to treat their shoulder.  The Physical Therapist specifically designed that plan of care for the patient’s back so in order to start treating their shoulder, the patient would need to get another evaluation done with a PT.  This is where the relationship and communication between the PTs and PTAs is so important.  We need to make sure the PTs know any kind of pain or discomfort the patient is feeling that is unrelated to their current plan of care so it can be addressed.

Aside from this, a PTA treats a patient the same was a Physical Therapist does.  We study the same information in school and we know what measurements to take to test a patient’s range of motion.  We work with the PTs to improve patients’ mobility and strength.  We all want to educate patients with various tools to make sure they can get back to living pain free.

If you are feeling any kind of pain or trying to recover from an injury, Loudoun Sports Therapy Center can help.  Our trained clinicians work together as a team to design a treatment plan that will help you achieve your personal goals whether that be running a race, walking your dog, carrying grocery bags without pain, or just sleeping through the entire night.  Whatever it may be, don’t let pain limit you.  Call Loudoun Sports Therapy Center TODAY at 703-450-4300 and set up your personalized evaluation.

Let us help you Live Life Pain Free!