Physical Therapist Assistant manipulating a patient's legs

How to Become a Rehabilitation Physical Therapist Assistant

Educational Requirements, Certifications, Daily Responsibilities, and Salary

Physical Therapist Assistant manipulating a patient's legs

Despite tremendous advances in medical technology and treatments, many people worldwide still experience life-altering illnesses or injuries every year. Fortunately, an entire field of medicine is dedicated to helping patients adapt to their circumstances to live fulfilling lives. As a rehabilitation physical therapist assistant, you’ll help people build their mobility and independence while earning a great living at the same time. We recently featured rehabilitation physical therapist assistants on our top PTA jobs list.

This career guide will give you all the details about how to become a rehabilitation physical therapist assistant. We’ll cover the required schooling, certifications, and what to expect from your daily routine. You’ll also learn how much you could make as a rehabilitation PTA and how long it usually takes to launch your new career.

If you’re interested in becoming a PTA but still curious about other jobs, you can explore the other options on our list of the top physical therapist assistant careers.

Rehabilitation Physical Therapist Assistant Definition

What Is a Rehabilitation Physical Therapist Assistant?

Rehabilitation physical therapist assistants specialize in treating patients with severe, life-altering medical conditions like strokes, traumatic brain injuries, or other physically disabling conditions. Rehabilitation PTAs work primarily with patients who need long-term assistance adapting to their health circumstances.

Rehabilitation Physical Therapist Assistant: Job Description

What Does a Rehabilitation Physical Therapist Assistant Do?

Rehabilitation physical therapist assistants help patients improve their strength, balance, and coordination to live more independently and complete daily tasks without assistance. Under the supervision of rehabilitation therapists or physical therapists, rehabilitation PTAs guide patients through recovery routines designed specifically for each patient. Sometimes, they’ll teach patients how to use medical equipment like wheelchairs, walkers, or prosthetics.

Rehabilitation Physical Therapist Assistant: Work Environment

Where Do Rehabilitation Physical Therapist Assistants Work?

Rehabilitation PTAs may work in either inpatient or outpatient settings. Rehabilitation physical therapist assistants can find jobs in large hospitals, private PT practices, dedicated rehabilitation clinics, or nursing-care facilities. As a rehabilitation PTA, your work environment will depend mainly on the patient populations you treat.

Rehabilitation Physical Therapist Assistant Duties

Some of the day-to-day responsibilities of rehabilitation physical therapist assistants include:

  • Measuring patients’ progress and recording their status
  • Guiding patients through warm-up and cool-down routines
  • Supervising and assisting patients during strengthening and mobility exercises
  • Teaching patients how to use medical equipment like prosthetics, walkers, or wheelchairs
  • Educating patients and their caregivers about what to expect during their recovery

Other physical therapist assistant duties may include preparing and maintaining equipment and light administrative work like scheduling appointments or responding to emails.

Rehabilitation Physical Therapist Assistant Hours & Schedule

Rehabilitation PTAs usually work full-time, 40-hour workweeks, though some hospitals and rehab clinics also offer part-time jobs. Rehabilitation therapy facilities sometimes operate outside standard business hours, but they’re not considered emergency services. As a result, rehabilitation physical therapist assistants rarely work late nights, though some jobs may require occasional weekend shifts.

Team of smiling therapists with arms crossed

What Skills Do You Need to Become a Rehabilitation Physical Therapist Assistant?

For a successful rehabilitation physical therapist assistant career, you’ll need a strong sense of empathy and a desire to help others overcome difficult circumstances. When patients go through major medical issues, mental challenges can be as tough as physical ones. People who can support their patients emotionally, as well as physically, will thrive as rehabilitation PTAs. Physical strength and stamina are also essential for any PTA career. You’ll be doing a lot of standing, squatting, and lifting while helping patients learn to move again.

Why is Rehabilitation a Great Career Path for Physical Therapist Assistants?

There’s a particular satisfaction in watching patients who have been dealt a tough hand overcome challenges and regain their capabilities. Rehabilitation PTAs have a front-row seat to some of modern medicine’s most significant recoveries. And while many of the patients you treat may not ever be the same as they were before their accident or illness, they’ll certainly appreciate your efforts to help their progress as much as possible.

Rehabilitation Physical Therapist Assistant Schooling, Training, & Certifications

What Degree Do You Need to be a Rehabilitation Physical Therapist Assistant?

To become a rehabilitation PTA, you’ll need to complete a physical therapist assistant program from an accredited college or university. Most associate degree programs require two full years in school, but by enrolling in an accelerated degree program, you could earn your PTA degree in as little as 21 months.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Rehabilitation Physical Therapist Assistant?

Like any other long-term goal, becoming a rehabilitation PTA is more manageable when broken down into a series of smaller steps. People who work full-time jobs while taking PTA classes part-time may take longer to complete their degree than PTA students taking a full course load.

Our step-by-step guide breaks down what it takes to become a rehabilitation physical therapist assistant:

1. Enroll in a Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA) Degree Program

The first step toward becoming a rehabilitation physical therapist assistant is enrolling in a PTA program at an accredited college or university. PTA school is accessible for all types of people—your willingness to work hard now is more important than your grades from high school.

To qualify for the PTA degree program at Provo College, you’ll need a high school diploma or GED, a passing score on the Test of Essential Academic Skills (TEAS) exam, and a reliable Internet connection. Some PTA programs may also require completing background checks or drug screenings.

2. Earn Your Physical Therapist Assistant Associates Degree

Like any associates degree program, your physical therapist assistant education will include general-education requirements like math, English, science, and psychology. These courses strengthen your communication, critical thinking, and overall people skills and prepare you to connect more closely with patients.

The bulk of your PTA degree program will focus on the specific skills and knowledge you need to thrive as a rehabilitation physical therapist assistant. Coursework includes building a deep understanding of the human body and how it moves, plus how to provide rehabilitative therapy to patients with all types of medical conditions. You’ll take courses covering kinesiology, pharmacology, and orthopedics and learn about the diseases and disabilities you’ll treat as a rehabilitation PTA. You’ll also participate in plenty of hands-on training, where you’ll learn how to treat patients with limited mobility safely and effectively.

During the final stage of your physical therapist assistant education, you’ll perform supervised therapy work with actual patients in a controlled clinical setting. Because rehabilitation PTAs often work with patients with less than complete control of their bodies, experience is vital for understanding the unique needs of patients who require long-term rehabilitative therapy.

When deciding where to attend school for your physical therapist assistant degree, consider colleges offering additional benefits like career counseling and job-placement services. Getting your PTA education from an institution that helps you get your foot in the door with employers can take a lot of weight off your shoulders during a job search.

Close up of a student writing on an exam

3. Pass the National Physical Therapy Exam

Before earning your PTA license and starting work as a rehabilitation physical therapist assistant, you’ll need to pass the PTA version of the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE). Passing this exam demonstrates you’re qualified to provide safe and effective patient care. The exam is a multiple-choice test with around 200 questions. You’ll have approximately four hours to complete the exam.

For many people who experience test anxiety, practice exams can be a valuable preparation tool. You can find practice exams through the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (the same organization that administers the NPTE). The Practice Exam and Assessment Tool—or PEAT for short—will give you an idea of what to expect during the exam. PEAT also provides real-time feedback, which helps you better understand any areas you should review before taking the exam.

Not everyone passes the NPTE on their first attempt, including those who eventually become successful PTAs. You can retake the exam if you come up short of the required passing score on your first try. However, be advised that you can only take the test up to three times in any given 12-month period. By taking your NPTE exam prep seriously, you’re giving yourself the best chance to star

4. Get Your PTA License on a State-By-State Basis

Once you’ve passed the NPTE, you’ll be eligible to become licensed in the state(s) where you plan to work. Because the NPTE is a national exam, transferring your scores and gaining licensure in different states is usually simple. This flexibility allows you to start your rehabilitation PTA career just about anywhere or to seek out the highest-paying PTA jobs throughout the country. The Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy will be your go-to resource for determining each state’s licensing requirements for PTAs.

Different states have varying requirements for maintaining your PTA license. However, most states will require occasional completion of ongoing education programs or proof of current employment and relevant work experience.

5. Gain Work Experience and Earn Additional Certifications

Before becoming a rehabilitation physical therapist assistant, you’ll likely need to gain work experience in other physical therapy clinics. Rehabilitation PTAs frequently work with patients who require special considerations during treatment, so many clinics and hospitals prefer to hire experienced PTAs for specialized rehabilitation roles.

Many rehabilitation PTAs seek additional training in neurology to better prepare them for working with stroke or TBI patients. The American Physical Therapy Association offers an advanced neurology certification, making you a more attractive candidate for the highest-paying rehabilitation physical therapist assistant jobs. Advanced certifications build on the foundation of what you learned in PTA school and teach you even more about treating specific conditions and patient populations.

How Much Does it Cost to Become a Rehabilitation Physical Therapist Assistant?

The cost of earning a physical therapist assistant associate degree varies significantly between institutions and according to your financial situation. When comparing the cost of college, be sure to ask how much you can expect to spend on lab fees, books, and other materials. Some colleges will include all these as part of a flat-rate pricing structure per credit hour, saving you money in the long run.

Wherever you’re pursuing your PTA education, you should inquire about financial aid programs that can make college significantly more affordable. At most colleges, the office of financial assistance can help you fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which determines your eligibility for federal and state grants, plus loans and institutional aid.

Earning and payment concept

Rehabilitation Physical Therapist Assistant Salary

How Much Do Rehabilitation Physical Therapist Assistants Make?

Physical therapist assistants throughout the United States earn an average annual salary* of around $61,000, which is about $29.00 per hour. PTA salaries among the 25% of earners start at over $75,000. The highest-paid PTAs with salaries in the top 10% routinely bring in $80,000 per year or more.

While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t provide salary* data specifically for rehabilitation physical therapist assistants, PTAs with advanced certifications and solid experience on their resumes tend to get paid the most in their field. Seasoned rehabilitation PTAs can earn a great living, as they have a highly specialized skill set that’s increasingly in demand.

Ready to Start Your Career as a Rehabilitation Physical Therapist Assistant?

If you’re looking for a career where you’ll form meaningful relationships with patients as they overcome significant life challenges, becoming a rehabilitation physical therapist assistant should be one of the top PTA careers on your mind. You’ll experience the joy of helping people overcome major milestones throughout their recovery and watch your patients become more confident and independent.

Learn more about the physical therapist assistant program at Provo College, and get started on the road to an exciting and fulfilling new PTA career today!