Physical therapy professional helping a patient

The Role of PTAs in Trauma Rehabilitation

Learn How PTAs Can Improve the Lives of Patients in Trauma Recovery

Physical therapy professional helping a patient

If you have sustained a serious injury, physical therapy can accelerate the natural healing process of your body. It helps people recover from their injuries in a safe and supported environment. Physical Therapist Assistants (PTAs) are often the unsung heroes of a physical therapy team. Not only do they assist physical therapists, but they can help restore and promote physical function throughout the rehabilitation process.

PTAs play an essential role within healthcare, particularly in facilitating recovery for individuals who have experienced trauma. With a physical therapy program in place, trauma survivors can utilize services that promote mobility, function, and quality of life. The ultimate goal of this rehabilitation process is to boost independence. Although it can be daunting for patients, physical therapy is vital when it comes to traumatic injuries.

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

Understanding Trauma Rehabilitation

PTAs who treat patients with traumatic injuries help manage inflammation and pain. They also limit the buildup of scar tissue, improve range of motion, lower the risk of reinjury, and increase muscle strength. The scope of trauma rehabilitation is vast and addresses physical, cognitive, and emotional impairments that result from traumatic injuries. PTAs aim to optimize physical function and promote participation in daily activities.

Some common conditions treated by physical therapists and PTAs in trauma rehabilitation include:

  • Orthopedic injuries
  • Spinal cord injuries
  • Traumatic brain injuries
  • Amputations

The Role of PTAs in Trauma Recovery

Physical Therapist Assistants work under physical therapists. Although no day is alike, PTAs in trauma rehabilitation generally assist with therapeutic exercises, mobility training, and functional activities. These professionals promote resilience and facilitate adjustment to life after trauma. PTAs guide patients through tailored interventions that may include therapeutic modalities like hot and cold therapy, ultrasound therapy, or transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS).

In addition, PTAs must maintain a collaborative approach and work with physical therapists, occupational therapists, psychologists, and other medical professionals in supporting holistic recovery. Typically, PTAs also collaborate with the families and caregivers of their patients.

Common Conditions Treated by PTAs in Trauma Patients

PTAs may encounter a range of traumatic injuries in rehabilitation settings, such as fractures, joint dislocations, spinal cord injuries, and traumatic amputations. Take a closer look at each condition with us.

Two medical professionals looking at an X-ray


According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, fractures refer to a “partial or complete break in the bone.” Fractures are categorized as open or closed depending on whether the bone breaks through the skin. Some common causes include trauma, falls, or direct blows to your body. Other causes are overuse or repetitive motions and diseases like osteoporosis.

Keep in mind that there can be a number of different symptoms. However, you might experience swelling, sudden pain, or trouble using the injured areas. There may also be warmth or tenderness in the area. After your bone has been set, immobilized, or operated on, your doctor may prescribe physical therapy (a.k.a. rehab) to help you heal.

For example, if you have a broken leg, a physical therapy team can show you how to use crutches or a cane. They may employ light exercises to reduce atrophy or muscle stiffness. After your splint or cast has been removed, physical therapy can ramp up and help restore your range of motion, muscle strength, etc.

Joint Dislocations

A joint dislocation is a “separation of two bones where they meet at a joint.” As you can probably imagine, this injury is often a very painful one. It can even deform or immobilize the joint in question. Some of the most common and vulnerable areas for joint dislocations include shoulders, fingers, elbows, knees, and hips. They are typically caused by a blow or a fall (i.e., contact sports).

Signs of a joint dislocation are severe pain, limited movement, numbness or tingling, and swollen and discolored areas. In addition, you might notice that the joint appears deformed or looks out of place. There are a range of treatment options depending on the location and severity of the injury. Once you enter the recovery stage, physical therapy can target tight or weakened muscles around the joint with specific exercises. PTAs strive to promote balance while educating their patients on proper posture and joint protection strategies.

Spinal Cord Injuries

As the name suggests, spinal cord injuries cause damage to the spinal cord. Some of these conditions might include herniated discs, vertebral fractures, abscesses, and more. The spinal cord is a tubelike structure that holds a bunch of nerves that travel from your brain, through the spinal column, and into the far reaches of your limbs. There are various symptoms of a spinal cord injury, such as back pain, muscle spasms, loss of sensation, paralysis or weakness, changes in reflexes, etc. According to the Mayo Clinic, the most common causes of spinal cord injuries (in the United States) are the following:

  • Car accidents
  • Falls
  • Violent encounters
  • Sports injuries
  • Diseases

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

Traumatic Amputations

As the title suggests, traumatic amputations involve the loss of a body part due to sudden injury. Common causes include factory or power tool accidents. Other common causes? Car accidents, natural disasters, and war. This might sound obvious, but symptoms typically include mangled body tissue, bleeding, and pain.

The recovery process for traumatic amputations is a long one, and it often extends far past surgical procedures or hospital stays. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, rehabilitation experts create individual plans that involve physical therapy, a prosthetist, occupational therapy, and rehabilitation psychology. Physical therapy focuses on flexibility, coordination, and muscle strength. These teams can also help you learn how to use a prosthesis on your recovery journey.

Physical therapy professional helping a patient with back discomfort

Techniques Utilized in Trauma Rehabilitation

PTAs use various techniques to assist their patients in physical therapy. Through individualized treatment plans, they may utilize exercises like strength training, balance training, and gait training, not to mention pain management. In addition, it’s vital that each patient receives psychosocial support to facilitate recovery and reintegration.

As previously mentioned, here are a few other techniques that a physical therapy team might use for patients with traumatic injuries:

  • Exercises
  • Manual therapy (i.e., massage or mobilization)
  • Heat and cold therapy
  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)
  • Proper use of a prosthesis

How to Become a Physical Therapist Assistant

Because PTAs must meet the basic requirements, they will need to graduate from an accredited associate-degree program and pass the NPTE exam. These Physical Therapist Assistants must ensure that they can care for patients with traumatic injuries.

Our guide breaks down what it takes to become a 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. Ask your program director what elective courses you can try to specialize further in your desired 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.

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.

Physical therapy professional helping a patient use parallel bars

4.Gain Work Experience

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 trauma rehabilitation should apply for jobs with physical therapists who focus on this area of physical therapy. Not only is this one of the most valuable ways to gain experience, but it can also serve as an excellent networking opportunity.

Keep in mind that some Trauma Rehabilitation PTAs seek additional training in neurology to better prepare them for working with stroke or TBI patients. The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) 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.

Challenges of Treating Trauma Patients

Physical Therapist Assistants face several challenges with patients who have experienced traumatic injuries, such as managing pain, addressing psychological trauma, facilitating adjustment to functional limitations, and meeting other complex care needs. Some strategies to overcome these challenges can include trauma-informed care, patient-centered goal setting, and interdisciplinary collaboration.

In addition, PTAs in this role must know how to properly interact with vulnerable patients. This includes several mental and emotional skills. Again, since PTAs work directly with trauma survivors, they should possess great interpersonal skills and compassionate traits.

Benefits of Treating Trauma Patients

Many healthcare professionals find it very satisfying to work with patients who have survived traumatic injuries. Not only can PTAs make a meaningful impact on the lives of others, but they can derive great satisfaction from witnessing functional improvements, adaptation to new challenges, and resilience in the face of adversity.

PTAs provide holistic support and empower trauma survivors to reclaim their independence as well as their sense of self. They strive to empower others and help them reach their full potential. More often than not, PTAs create important and significant connections with their patients.

Your Journey into Physical Therapy Starts Here

In conclusion, this guide sheds light on the career path of a Physical Therapist Assistant. For people who love the idea of helping patients improve their mobility and promote independence, becoming a PTA could be a wonderful career choice. Physical therapy can provide PTAs with a great deal of job satisfaction as they guide patients through recovery and promote resilience. Now and in the future, there will always be a need for transformative healthcare professionals like Physical Therapist Assistants.

Explore opportunities in trauma rehabilitation, where you’ll find a diverse range of settings and populations. You can pursue your passion for physical therapy with ongoing education and professional development in this dynamic field. 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.

Group of medical students sitting on a bench

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!