How to Become a Women's Health Physical Therapist
March 15, 2021
Women's health physical therapists help patients recover from the complications of pregnancy. They also treat other conditions more likely to affect women than men, such as fibromyalgia.
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.
What is women's health?
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:
- Gynecology and reproductive health
- Breast care
- Female sexual health
- Care during pregnancy and childbirth
- Preventive care
Women's health can also include other kinds of medical care, but with a particular focus on a woman's physical and psychological needs.
How can a physical therapist help with women's health?
A physical therapist can provide diagnosis and treatment of many women's health conditions, including:
- Prenatal and postnatal conditions
- Abdominal separation (a common side effect of pregnancy)
- Post-surgical issues (such as pain and scarring after breast cancer surgery)
- Pelvic floor rehabilitation and pelvic pain
- Perimenopausal and menopausal issues
- Issues related to aging
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.
Educational requirement to become a women's health physical therapist
Most graduate physical therapy programs require applicants to hold a bachelor's degree reflecting coursework in a number of health-related prerequisites.
- Depending on the physical therapy program, those requirements may include courses in anatomy, physiology, biology, chemistry, physics, statistics, and/or psychology.
- A number of undergraduate majors — health sciences, athletic training, or physiology, for example — require these courses and so are helpful in preparing you for a physical therapy master's degree. None of these majors, however, is required for admission to a physical therapy program.
A few schools admit students to a combined undergraduate and Doctor of Physical Therapy (BS/DPT) program.
- Both Drexel University and Boston University, to name two, offer a six-year BS/DPT program. These programs require three years of undergraduate study, followed by the standard three-year DPT program.
- A few schools even admit students at the high school level and allow them to continue into the DPT program once they have completed the undergraduate-level prerequisites.
If you go the traditional route, count on spending at least seven years completing your training.
- An undergraduate degree typically takes at least four years; it takes an additional three years> to earn a DPT.
- A standard DPT curriculum includes courses in anatomy, biology, biomechanics, behavioral science, communication, ethics, kinesiology, exercise physiology, and pharmacology.
- Coursework includes lab and clinical components; about 20 percent of your time will be spent on clinical education, gaining hands-on experience by working with patients to apply what you've learned in the classroom.
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:
- Admission requirements
- Cost and financial aid opportunities
- Program structure and curriculum
- Clinical education and training opportunities
- Student demographics
- Size of the university and PT program
- Employment rates
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.
Licensure and accreditation for becoming a women's health physical therapist
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.
Kinds of women's health physical therapists
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:
- Abdominal separation
- Post-surgical issues
- Prenatal and postnatal conditions
- Pelvic floor rehabilitation
- Pelvic pain
- Perimenopausal and menopausal issues
- Issues related to aging
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.
Pros and cons of becoming a women's health physical therapist
As with all professions, there are pros and cons to a career in women's health physical therapy. Let's explore a few:
- Pro: You will likely earn an excellent salary and enjoy good benefits, as well as pleasant working conditions
- Con: To get to that point, you will have to complete a long, challenging, and potentially expensive education
- Pro: You will work in diverse work environments: hospitals, fitness centers, assisted living facilities, and schools, to name a few.
- Con: The people you work with may be difficult, reluctant, and/or resentful; they are dealing with pain, which can make anyone unpleasant. They won't always (or even usually) be, but some definitely will be; that's something to keep in mind.
- Pro: You will enjoy the satisfaction of helping women deal with acute challenges
- Con: In order to continue practicing, you will have to regularly renew your license and continue your education.
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.
- This type of physical therapy is challenging. A women's health physical therapist has to think about each patient each time they see them in to assess progress effectiveness and pain. There's no coasting in this job; you need to be engaged all the time.
- You won't always be able to see the patient's problem externally; unlike a sprained ankle or broken arm, many women's health issues cannot be externally examined, and you must rely on the patient for feedback. You have to communicate well throughout the therapy.
- Women's health physical therapy can be very intimate. You'll probably spend an hour or more with each patient, and you'll only see a few patients each day.
Women's health physical therapist: job prospects
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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