When most people hear the words “physical therapy,” they immediately think of rehabilitation for
someone with a sports injury. And while that’s accurate, physical therapists work with many types of
patients, presenting with a wide variety of injuries, conditions and diseases. In fact, the profession of
physical therapy can be divided into many distinct practice areas.
According to the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS), there are nine areas in
which physical therapists can receive advanced certification. A few of these specialty areas, which
cover most of the injuries, diseases and age populations treated by physical therapists, include:
Cardiovascular and pulmonary: for cardiovascular and pulmonary conditions, such as heart
attacks, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and pulmonary fibrosis. The goal of this
sub-specialty is to increase physical endurance and improve functional independence.
Neurology: for neurological conditions and impairments, including Alzheimer’s disease, brain
injury, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injury and stroke. Treatment
plans are designed to help patients independently participate in activities of daily living for as long as
possible. PTs teach patients to adapt to visual, balance, mobility and muscle loss impairments.
Orthopedics: for musculoskeletal injuries involving bones, muscles, ligaments and tendons. A rehab
program may include joint mobilization, manual therapy, strength training and other modalities.
Pediatrics: for infants, toddlers, children and adolescents with diseases and injuries ranging from
developmental delays, genetic disorders and limb deficiencies to muscle diseases and orthopedic
disabilities. PTs use therapeutic exercise, modalities and treatments to relieve pain, regain strength
and range of motion, and to improve balance, flexibility and gross and fine motor skills.
Women’s health: for conditions including pelvic floor dysfunction, postpartum care, lymphatic
swelling and urinary incontinence. A PT program might include external and internal soft tissue
mobilization, strengthening exercises, biofeedback and electrical stimulation.
The other specialty areas recognized by ABPTS are geriatrics, oncology, sports and clinical
electrophysiology. PTs can gain expertise in these areas without pursuing advanced certification,
either by gaining years of experience with specific patient populations or by fulfilling continuing
When looking for the right physical therapist to treat a particular ailment or disease, patients should
feel comfortable asking about the therapist’s training, education and background. Understanding
what expertise physical therapists have helps understand the rehab approach and how it impacts an
injury or illness. Patients who start a dialogue and keep an open line of communication with their
physical therapists will get the most out of their rehabilitation sessions.