After four years of undergraduate studies and three years of clinical education, physical therapists earn just one set of credentials upon graduation. If you’d like to expand those credentials, let’s learn about 10 Physical Therapy Specialties to Boost Your Career.
Physical therapists are a crucial part of the healthcare team because they restore or optimize movement and function following injury or sickness. As part of their patient’s treatment, these hands-on healthcare experts analyze movement dysfunction, design care plans, perform therapeutic exercises, facilitate neuromuscular control of movement, and manage pain. Physical therapists apply these abilities to a diverse spectrum of patients and in a variety of practice settings.
Throughout your professional career as a physical therapist (PT), you can choose to specialize in one or more areas. Adding a specialized certification displays your skills in your field of interest, strengthens your credentials, and opens the door to additional work opportunities, some of which may be virtual.
Physical therapy specialties range from women’s health to wound management and allow you to delve deeply into a particular passion or area of interest. Not only will you earn another qualification, which will improve your career and financial opportunities, but you will also be able to provide better treatment to each patient.
Physical therapy specializations eligibility requirements
If you’re a PT looking to achieve professional growth, it’s well worth the financial and time investment to obtain board certification from the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS).
Each specialty has its eligibility criteria, but all physical therapists must meet the following requirements:
- Obtain licensure to practice physical therapy in the United States.
- Apply and pay the application fee to APTA by the application deadline.
- Submit a separate application for each Specialist certification you wish to obtain.
- Pass the clinical specialty exam
Physical therapists can choose to complete more than one of the physical therapy specialties; however, because of certification preparation and time limits, the ABPTS does not recommend that applicants apply in more than one specialist area during the same year.
Benefits of Having a Physical Therapy Specialty
Physical therapy programs educate on a wide range of topics, but they lack an individual focus. Physical therapy specializations allow PTs to specialize in the areas of physical therapy that interest them the most, whether it’s pediatrics, sports medicine, or everything in between. Furthermore, those who pursue physical therapy credentials might obtain advanced abilities in one field.
Therapists who specialize can work to become leaders and mentors in their particular disciplines. Furthermore, it communicates to patients and referral sources alike that the PT has a thorough awareness of a specific ailment. Physical therapists with specialties have a better possibility of earning higher physical therapy salaries and more job opportunities due to upgraded certifications and increased referrals.
List of 10 Physical Therapy Specialties to Boost Your Career
There are nine established types of physical therapy specialties, with a tenth specialty becoming eligible for application in September 2022. Here’s a better look at the PT specialties designated by the American Board of Physical Therapy Specializations (ABPTS).
Geriatric Clinical Specialist (GCS)
With the aging U.S. population, specializing in geriatrics is becoming increasingly relevant. Physical therapists who specialize in geriatrics are experts in helping patients with musculoskeletal conditions like arthritis and osteoporosis, as well as progressive neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
To earn their specialization in geriatrics, applicants must meet the minimum APTA requirements, which are:
- Successful completion of an APTA-accredited geriatrics residency within the past ten years OR
- 2000 hours of direct patient care in geriatrics within the past 10 years.
Orthopedic Clinical Specialist (OCS)
Orthopedics has historically been the most popular physical therapy specialty, with 15,596 certified specialists in the United States as of June 2019. Orthopedic specialists treat injuries and adverse conditions of the bone, muscle, tendons, ligaments, and joints. They also see patients with musculoskeletal disorders such as arthritis or those recovering from surgery.
The requirements to become an orthopedic specialist include:
- Successful completion of an APTA-accredited orthopedic residency within the past ten years OR
- 2000 hours of direct patient care in orthopedics within the past 10 years.
Sports Clinical Specialist (SCS)
Athletes who have sustained an injury may be very familiar with this physical therapy specialty. Physical therapists who specialize in sports medicine work to alleviate and heal injuries caused while engaging in an athletic activity.
Common sports injuries include ACL tears, concussions, tennis elbow, hip flexor strains, and shoulder injuries such as dislocation of the joint or tearing in the rotator cuff. Physical therapists use strengthening, stretching, manual therapy, hydrotherapy, and heat or cold application to restore function and movement to the patient’s affected areas. For sports therapy, patients are likely athletes who want to return to peak performance, so restoring muscle strength, improving speed, quickening reaction time, and improving agility are often areas of focus.
To become a sports clinical specialist, physical therapists must meet the minimum APTA requirements, which include:
- CPR certification via the American Heart Association’s BLS Healthcare Provider Course or the American Red Cross’s CPR for the Professional Rescuer course
- Become certified for Acute Management of Injury & Illness in sports medicine
- Successful completion of an APTA-accredited sports residency within the past ten years OR
- 2000 hours of direct patient care in sports within the past 10 years, including 100 hours in an athletic venue.
Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Clinical Specialist (CCS)
This specialization indicates advanced clinical practice and expertise in the treatment of patients with various cardiac and respiratory disorders.
Cardiopulmonary rehab programs play a vital role in recovery for a wide variety of patients— from those who have suffered heart attacks or undergone open-heart surgery, to those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or other respiratory diseases. This type of work is not only highly rewarding, but it also tends to be somewhat less physically demanding than traditional PT work. With such a small subset of the PT profession holding this clinical specialist designation, you’ll have many doors open for you professionally. For example, if you want to teach a cardiopulmonary course at the local PT program, you might not need a DPT or Ph.D.—at least not at the adjunct level.
To become a cardiovascular and pulmonary specialist, applicants must meet the following requirements:
- Applicants must submit evidence of participation in a clinical data analysis project directly related to the cardiovascular and pulmonary specialty area within the past ten years
- Have current Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) certification by the American Heart Association.
- Complete a prerequisite amount of patient care in this specialty, through either 2000 working hours or an APTA-accredited residency.
Electrophysiologic Clinical Specialist (ECS)
As one of the newest PT specializations, Physical therapists practicing within this specialty may employ electrotherapy to help treat their patients. Electrotherapy — or the use of electrical stimulation — can help to prevent blood clots, facilitate wound healing, relax muscle spasms, improve blood circulation and alleviate pain. It has also been shown to accelerate wound healing. Common wounds treated by electrotherapy include abrasions, post-surgical incisions, diabetic ulcers, and lacerations.
The requirements to become an electrophysiologic clinical specialist are as follows:
- Submit a list of between one and three relevant individual learning experiences completed under the guidance of a licensed physical therapist within the past 10 years, along with a letter from the colleague providing oversight of that experience
- Submit actual patient reports completed within the past 3 years and testing log documentation of 500 of the most recent complete electroneuromyography examinations completed within the past 10 years.
- Successful completion of an APTA-accredited clinical electrophysiology residency within the past ten years OR
- 2000 hours of direct patient care in electrophysiology within the past 10 years.
Neurology Clinical Specialist (NCS)
PTs who pursue the in-demand specialty of neurology treat patients with various neurological disorders, injuries, and impairments. Neurology specialists typically work in clinical environments such as hospitals and rehabilitation centers.
Physical therapists looking to obtain a specialization in neurology must complete these patient care prerequisites:
- Successful completion of an APTA-accredited neurology residency within the past ten years OR
- 2000 hours of direct patient care in neurology within the past 10 years.
With an oncology certification, you can help patients affected by cancer and chronic illness improve their movement and wellness at every stage of their lives. Physical therapy has been shown to help manage a range of impairments associated with cancer treatment, including lymphedema, cancer-related fatigue, nerve damage, weakness, and pain.
Oncology specialists must complete these requirements to obtain certification for cancer care:
- Successful completion of an APTA-accredited oncology residency within the past ten years OR
- 2000 hours of direct patient care in oncology within the past ten years.
Pediatric Clinical Specialist (PCS)
Physical therapists in this field work with a range of children, from newborns to teenagers. They work to treat a variety of disorders and conditions that inhibit children from functioning or growing as they should. Developmental delays, cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis, scoliosis, and brain injuries are commonly seen.
Pediatric physical therapists can work in environments outside of a hospital. They are also found in schools, outpatient centers, rehabilitation facilities, and, at times, in the patient’s home. In addition to treating children, physical therapists may work with family members to educate them on caring for and assisting their children.
The requirements to become a pediatric specialist include:
- Successful completion of an APTA-accredited pediatrics residency within the past ten years OR
- 2000 hours of direct patient care in pediatrics within the past 10 years.
Women’s Health Specialist (WCS)
A newer specialization in physical therapy, women’s health spans conditions affecting women of all ages, such as pregnancy and menopause. Physical therapy specialists often help pre-and postpartum women experiencing issues such as incontinence or low back pain like pelvic pain.
To become a women’s health specialist, applicants must fulfill certain requirements, including:
- Successful completion of an APTA-accredited women’s health residency within the past ten years OR
- 2000 hours of direct patient care in women’s health within the past 10 years.
Wound Management Specialist
Wound management is anticipated to become a board-certified specialty in 2022 With the first specialist certification examination slated for November 2022. Wound management specialists will involve assessing, understanding, and managing multiple types of superficial and deep wounds as well as integumentary conditions.
Physical therapy specialties aren’t just a chance to indulge your passions, they’re an opportunity to Boost Your Career. While it does take time and commitment, the rewards that come from achieving your board-certified physical therapy specialists are well worth the effort, opening the door to new and exciting job opportunities in the field for which you are most passionate.
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