When we think of physical therapy, we may picture a basketball player working to rebuild her strength after an injury, or an elderly person working to regain his sense of balance after a fall or surgery. Physical therapists certainly provide these services, but they provide many more as well. They work with patients to develop exercise and treatment programs tailored to a wide range of specific needs, often seeing those patients through part, if not all, of their rehabilitation and recovery.
A women's health physical therapist specializes in helping women with conditions, diseases, and issues related to a woman's health. As a women's health specialist, the PT trains to develop a deeper understanding of the subset of conditions that apply exclusively, or predominantly, to women.
This relatively recent specialization — the Section on Women's Health, the preeminent membership organization for women's health physical therapists, first recognized the specialty in 1995 — often treats issues arising from pregnancy (pain, organ prolapse, sexual dysfunction, incontinence) and aging (osteoporosis, breast cancer recovery), but any condition that impacts women more frequently than men (e.g. fibromyalgia) may bring a patient to a women's health physical therapist.
Women's health refers to the area of medicine that studies and treats diseases and conditions that affect only women, that primarily affect women, or that affect women differently than men.
Women's health issues include:
Women's health can also include other kinds of medical care, but with a particular focus on a woman's physical and psychological needs.
A physical therapist can provide diagnosis and treatment of many women's health conditions, including:
By focusing on physical strengthening, exercise, increased mobility, and correct positioning, a women's health physical therapist can help to provide relief for women's health issues and improve the quality of women's lives.
Most graduate physical therapy programs require applicants to hold a bachelor's degree reflecting coursework in a number of health-related prerequisites.
A few schools admit students to a combined undergraduate and Doctor of Physical Therapy (BS/DPT) program.
If you go the traditional route, count on spending at least seven years completing your training.
Whichever path you choose, make sure to select a physical therapy program that is certified by the Commission on Accreditation of Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE); it is the only agency recognized by the US Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation for accrediting physical therapy programs.
You can apply to many PT programs using the standardized application available at the Physical Therapist Central Application Service website.
As with any higher education application decision, there are many factors to consider in choosing your school and program:
Think about which factors are most important to you – Is relocating out of the question, for instance? – and narrow down your selection accordingly. There are many good programs out there, including some that can be completed online.
Completing your DPT does not ensure your certification as a physical therapist; for that credential, you'll need to pass the National Physical Therapy Exam. At that point, you will be certified as a general licensed physical therapist, with one final step remaining to become a women's health physical therapist: passing the exam for specialist certification in women's health from the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties. The exam is offered once a year, typically during the first two weeks of March.
Once you have qualified as a women's health physical therapist, you can work as a general women's health physical therapist, treating women for such conditions as:
Some PTs choose to specialize further. Pelvic physical therapy, for example, is an emerging field in pregnancy and postpartum therapy that focuses on women who have musculoskeletal issues or are facing high-risk pregnancies.
Pelvic floor health and rehabilitation treatment provides relief to many women suffering from pelvic pain or urinary issues, particularly those that can result from childbirth or as a part of the aging process. Those interested in specializing in this field can pursue a certificate from the Academy of Pelvic Health Physical Therapy.
Whether you choose to specialize further or prefer to work in a broader range of women's health issues, as a women's health physical therapist you will provide an essential service in helping women face and overcome special physical challenges.
As with all professions, there are pros and cons to a career in women's health physical therapy. Let's explore a few:
In addition to these more obvious issues, there are some aspects of the job that can be both pros and cons, depending on your perspective.
According to the U.S. News and World Report's Best Jobs issue, the median salary for physical therapists in 2017 was $86,850. The highest-paid 25 percent made $101,790 that year, while the lowest-paid 25 percent made $71,670.
Bureau of Labor Statistics data confirm US News' prognosis; the agency reports a 2018 median salary of $87,930 for physical therapists. The BLS predicts a robust growth rate in physical therapist jobs of 28 percent for the 2016–2026 period, resulting in over 67,000 new jobs. That's four times the growth rate for the entire labor market in the United States.
Pay data specifically for women's health physical therapists are harder to find. Payscale.com reports an average salary for the women's health physical therapy specialization of $83,000, significantly higher than the $70,000 it reports for physical therapy generalists. That's encouraging.
The takeaway: physical therapists are in demand, a situation that should continue into the foreseeable future. Women's health physical therapy is an important specialization that serves a large population, one that will increasingly require PT as the nation's average age climbs upward. If this is a field that interests you, there's no good reason not to pursue it. The opportunities, and the rewards, that come from doing important work await you.
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