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Physical therapy is an area of health care that treats people with various conditions, such as back and neck injuries, arthritis, amputations and cerebral palsy, in addition to sprains and fractures. Completion of a physical therapy program usually leads to an advanced degree. Students take courses in such classes as anatomy, physiology, neuroscience and pharmacology, in addition to completing clinical rotations. As a result, physical therapists have a broad range of alternative career choices.
While occupation therapy shares similarities with physical therapy, it includes a more holistic approach to care, which may appeal to physical therapists who want a more challenging job. For example, occupational therapists may work in a mental health environment where they help patients improve time management, budgeting and household chores. Or, they may teach an elderly patient with memory loss how to use a computer or teach an autistic child how to engage in playful activities. Occupational therapists also design and help patients use adaptive equipment, such as wheelchairs, and they evaluate the patient’s work, home, or school environment and propose ways to make it more user friendly. Occupational therapists generally need a master’s degree in occupational therapy.
A career as an athletic trainer allows physical therapists to continue treating physical injuries and illnesses. Athletic trainers work with athletes at colleges, elementary and secondary schools, recreational sports centers and in spectator sports, where they prevent, diagnose, and treat muscle and bone injuries. Athletic trainers apply bandages, tape, braces and other protective or injury-preventive devices. They also identify and evaluate injuries and develop and implement rehabilitative programs for injured athletes. In addition, they plan injury prevention programs and provide first aid or emergency care. The educational requirement to pursue this profession is a bachelor’s or master’s degree in athletic training or a related field.
Physical therapists who are willing to pursue a doctorate may consider becoming a chiropractor. These doctors treat patients who have problems with their musculoskeletal system: bones, muscles, ligaments and tendons. Chiropractors use their hands to adjust such joints as the spinal column, and they also use massage therapy, acupuncture and ultrasound to treat patients. In addition, chiropractors may apply such supports as braces, straps, tape, and shoe inserts to help alleviate pain and provide treatment. Most chiropractors work in office settings, either alone or as part of a group practice. A small number of these professionals work in hospitals or physicians' offices. Chiropractors need a Doctor of Chiropractic degree.
Like physical therapists, massage therapists are skilled in locating painful parts of the body and using massage techniques to bring relief. Their soothing touch also helps clients get through injuries, increase relaxation and reduce stress. Massage therapists apply pressure with their fingers, hands, elbows, forearms, and feet to knead muscles and soft tissues. Massage therapists also use lotions, oils, medical heat lamps, massage tables or chairs. They offer several types of massages, ranging from Swiss massages, sports massages and deep-tissue massages, depending on the needs of the client. Massage therapists may work for chiropractors or in hospitals, spas, hotels, fitness centers or shopping centers. In addition, some travel to their clients' homes or offices to provide services. Educational requirements for massage therapists vary by state but typically involve a postsecondary program consisting of 500 hours of coursework and experience.
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