Physical therapy professional applying medical tape to a young patient

The Role of PTAs in Orthopedic Care

Behind the Scenes in the Essential World of Orthopedic Physical Therapy

Physical therapy professional applying medical tape to a young patient

Physical therapist assistants (PTAs) are one of the fastest-growing career fields in the healthcare industry, and for a good reason. It’s an incredibly rewarding field of work where you’ll play an essential role in helping patients get healthier on a daily basis. In orthopedic physical therapy, Physical Therapist Assistants (PTAs) help rehabilitate people who are recovering from orthopedic surgery or who suffer from musculoskeletal conditions.

Physical therapy is vital when it comes to restoring range of motion, improving strength, and reducing pain through a number of techniques. People with orthopedic conditions require treatment for the orthopedic system, which includes areas like muscles, tendons, bones, and joints. This is where teams with Physical Therapist Assistants can help. With a physical therapy program in place, orthopedic patients can utilize services that boost independence and enhance their daily lives.

This blog post will explore the specific contributions and challenges of PTAs in treating orthopedic patients. We’ll also review the duties, techniques, and educational requirements for becoming an Orthopedic Physical Therapist Assistant. Learn how to become a Physical Therapist Assistant and consider the top PTA jobs to see if this career path suits you.

Understanding Orthopedic Physical Therapy

Orthopedic PTAs assist physical therapists when it comes to the treatment and rehabilitation of musculoskeletal conditions. They aim to restore physical function and mobility. They might encounter patients with fractures, joint replacements, and sports injuries. In addition, Orthopedic PTAs may encounter strains or sprains, tears, inflammation, arthritis, and more. They also provide post-surgery treatment for muscle reconstruction or joint replacements.

Some common conditions treated by orthopedic physical therapists and PTAs include:

  • Osteoporosis
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Carpel tunnel
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Disc herniation
  • TMJ issues
  • Rotator cuff injuries
  • Plantar fasciitis
  • Achilles tendinitis

The Role of PTAs in Orthopedic Care

Orthopedic Physical Therapist Assistants help patients perform therapeutic exercises that increase their endurance, balance, and coordination. They also use manual therapy techniques and educate their patients. These professionals promote orthopedic health by supporting physical therapists at various facilities across the country. Under the supervision of physical therapists, Orthopedic PTAs guide patients through strengthening programs designed to enhance their mobility and overall health.

In addition, Orthopedic PTAs must maintain a collaborative approach and work with physical therapists, orthopedic surgeons, and other healthcare professionals to optimize patient outcomes. PTAS must implement treatment plans and facilitate patient progress. Above all else, they promote functional independence.

Common Conditions Treated by PTAs in Orthopedic Patients

PTAs encounter a wide range of conditions and disorders when treating orthopedic patients, such as rotator cuff injuries, knee osteoarthritis, and spinal disorders. Take a closer look at each condition with us.

Medical professional treating a man for back pain

Rotator Cuff Injuries

You’ve probably heard of rotator cuffs, but you may not know what they are; the rotator cuff refers to the muscles and tendons around your shoulder joint. Injuries to the rotator cuff often create a dull but present ache in the shoulder that gets worse at night. Causes can include habitual wear and tear, repetitive overhead activity, and falls or accidents. Although some injuries don’t cause pain, damage to the rotator cuff might interrupt your sleep, produce arm weakness, and start as a deep shoulder ache.

Physical therapy can help you regain your strength and movement after some rotator cuff injuries. A physical therapy team may use exercise, ice, heat, and massage to help boost your range of motion. In addition, they will likely use several types of equipment on your healing journey.

Knee Osteoarthritis

To put it simply, knee osteoarthritis occurs when the cartilage in your knee joint has begun to break down. This causes friction that makes your knees either hurt, swell, or stiffen. Although osteoarthritis has no cure, there are various treatments that can help relieve symptoms and slow its progress. Common causes include overweight patients, current or old knee injuries, stress from jobs or sports, and crooked joints or bones. The most obvious symptom is knee pain. You might also hear a grinding sound when you move, or perhaps your knee feels wobbly, as if it’s going to give out when you put weight on it.

Sometimes, knee osteoarthritis is treated with injections and surgery. However, healthcare professionals will usually try non-surgical treatments first. Physical therapy is one of those treatments. They can focus on range of motion exercises, muscle strengthening, bracing, and manual therapy. Learn more with APTA here.

Spinal Disorders

Spinal disorders cause damage to the spinal cord. Some of these conditions might include tumors, herniated discs, vertebral fractures, abscesses, and more. This tubelike structure holds a bunch of nerves that reach from your back all the way to the base of your brain. There are various symptoms of a spinal cord disorder, such as back pain, muscle spasms, loss of sensation, paralysis or weakness, changes in reflexes, etc. Damage from inside or outside the spinal cord is one of the most common causes of spinal disorders.

Although it depends on the location and severity, treatment of spinal disorders often includes physical and/or occupational therapy. Through physical therapy, rehabilitation specialists can manage individualized, long-term therapy plans.

Elderly woman using an exercise band in physical therapy

Techniques Utilized in Orthopedic Physical Therapy

PTAs use various techniques and modalities to assist their patients in orthopedic therapy. They may utilize orthopedic exercises like therapeutic stretching, manual therapy, and modalities for pain management. Through this process, Physical Therapist Assistants can help their orthopedic patients improve muscle strength, coordination, and physical endurance. They may work with orthopedic surgeons, neurologists, occupation therapists, and exercise physiologists.

Keep in mind that Orthopedic PTAs must adhere to individualized treatment plans and provide patient education to optimize outcomes and prevent re-injury. Here are a few other techniques that a physical therapy team might use for orthopedic patients:

  • Strengthening (therapeutic & stabilization)
  • Range of motion
  • Education
  • Manual therapy
    • Resistance
    • Soft tissue
    • Passive movements
    • Joint manipulation
  • Use of modalities
    • Ultrasound
    • Cold laser
    • Heat or ice
    • E-stimulation

How to Become an Orthopedic Physical Therapist Assistant

Because Orthopedic PTAs must meet the basic requirements, they will need to graduate from an accredited associate-degree program and pass the NPTE exam. Some professionals in this field will also pursue certification in orthopedics. See the American Physical Therapy Association to learn more about specialized training in several areas of physical therapy.

Our guide breaks down what it takes to become an Orthopedic Physical Therapist Assistant:

1. Complete a Physical Therapist Assistant Degree Program

If you’d like to become a PTA in the U.S., you will need to earn an associate degree from a PTA program that’s accredited by CAPTE. It’s important to remember that each program will have its own set of admissions requirements. To give you a better idea, the PTA degree program at Unitek College requires a high school diploma or GED, a passing score on the Test of Essential Academic Skills (TEAS) exam, and more. In addition, the Unitek College program requires background checks and drug screenings.

While your PTA education will likely include some general education requirements, most of your program will focus on core classes like anatomy, physical ailments, medical terminology, and patient care. Students also typically learn about kinesiology and equipment operation, not to mention mental health and legal issues. Aspiring PTAs who are interested in orthopedics may pursue orthopedic-centered electives at this time. Ask your program director what elective courses you can try to specialize further in this area of physical therapy.

2. Pass the National Physical Therapy Exam

In order to obtain your PTA license and start your career, you must pass the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE). This test demonstrates your mastery of the necessary skills to perform PTA tasks. The NPTE is a multiple-choice test with 200 questions. Keep in mind that you’ll have four hours to complete this exam.

If you’re nervous about taking the test, you might want to speak with graduates who have been in this situation. Talk to your teachers and counselors. Consider practice exams, too. Go to the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy website to learn more about these exams. They offer PEAT, or the Practice Exam and Assessment Tool, to provide you with an idea of what to expect on the exam. However, it’s important to remember that you can only retake the test up to three times in any given 12-month period.

Stethoscope draped over a stack of textbooks

3. Obtain Your PTA License on a State-By-State Basis

After you’ve successfully completed 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, it’s usually easy to transfer your scores to gain licensure in different states. The Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy will be your go-to resource for determining each state’s licensing requirements for PTAs.

Although some states have different requirements for maintaining your PTA license, most states will require the completion of ongoing education programs or proof of current employment and relevant work experience.

4.Gain Work Experience and Additional Certifications

The next step is to build your resume and gain work experience. If you’d like to stand out from other job candidates, you should also obtain certification in basic life support (BLS). PTAs who would like to specialize in orthopedics should apply for jobs with orthopedic physical therapists. Not only is this one of the most valuable ways to gain experience, but it can also serve as an excellent networking opportunity.

In addition, you might want to consider advanced specialization or certification. Look into a certification called recognition of advanced proficiency in musculoskeletal physical therapy with the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA).

Remember: There is great value in hands-on clinical experience and continuing education to develop proficiency in orthopedic rehabilitation techniques.

Challenges of Treating Orthopedic Patients

Physical Therapist Assistants face several challenges in orthopedic settings, such as patient pain management, adherence to exercise programs, and post-operative complications. Some strategies to overcome these challenges can include effective communication techniques and interdisciplinary collaboration. Above all else, Orthopedic PTAs must ensure that they provide patient-centered care.

In addition, PTAs in this role must know how to properly interact with orthopedic patients. This includes several mental and emotional skills. Again, since Orthopedic PTAs work directly with vulnerable people, they should have great interpersonal skills and compassionate natures. These specialized Physical Therapist Assistants will need to move and manipulate the bodies of their patients.

Physical therapy professional helping older patients lift weights

Benefits of Treating Orthopedic Patients

Healthcare professionals usually find it very satisfying to work with orthopedic patients. Not only can PTAs make a significant impact on their quality of life, but they can also provide these patients with as much functional independence as possible. They can gain a great deal of fulfillment by witnessing vulnerable populations improve mobility, pain management, and overall well-being. There is much satisfaction to be had in helping patients regain confidence and return to their daily activities following musculoskeletal injuries or surgeries.

Orthopedic PTAs empower patients to take an active role in their recovery and long-term musculoskeletal health.

Your Journey into Physical Therapy Starts Here

In conclusion, this guide sheds light on the career path of an Orthopedic Physical Therapist Assistant. For people who love the idea of helping patients with musculoskeletal disorders or surgeries improve their motor skills, minimize pain, and promote independence, becoming an Orthopedic PTA could be a wonderful career choice. Physical therapy can also boost the mental health of orthopedic patients and provide PTAs with a great deal of job satisfaction. Now and in the future, there will always be a need for healthcare professionals like Orthopedic Physical Therapist Assistants.

There are many rewarding aspects of a career in orthopedic physical therapy, such as positively impacting the recovery and daily routines of orthopedic patients. If this is one of your career goals, pursuing your passion for orthopedic therapy with ongoing education and professional development in this dynamic field is essential. Unitek College offers a Physical Therapist Assistant program in Sacramento and several other healthcare programs. They are designed to equip you with the skills and knowledge needed for a successful healthcare career.

At Unitek, we aim to provide you with the necessary skills and experience to excel as a Physical Therapist Assistant. We want you ready to contribute as compassionate, ethical professionals who uphold the dignity of their patients. Upon graduating, we also want to prepare you for licensure by helping you confidently undertake the PTA certification exams.

In addition, our career services team offers several perks. They provide students with mock interviews and networking opportunities with potential employers. They also offer resume critiques to help each student succeed in becoming a PTA.

Join us today!