As a high school kid, Cort Cieminski loved sports, but he also got hurt a lot. Getting better often meant working with a physical therapist. Later on, as he considered his career options, physical therapy seemed like a natural choice.

"Most students tell similar stories," says Cieminski, who directs the physical therapy doctoral program at the College of St. Catherine. "They've seen what physical therapy has done for themselves, a friend or a relative. They have a personal connection to the field."

Science and art

Physical therapists help people with impaired movement recover normal movement. Their patients include individuals with disabling conditions like low-back pain, arthritis, heart disease, fractures, head injuries and cerebral palsy.

The therapist begins by reviewing the medical chart and taking a personal history. After examining the patient, the therapist decides on the physical therapy diagnosis and prognosis, and creates a plan of care that includes the necessary interventions. As treatment continues, the therapist documents and assesses the patient's progress, modifying the plan as necessary.

"Physical therapy combines science and art," Cieminski says. "Therapists are also educators because we teach patients how to exercise, regain function and avoid reinjury."

Varied practice settings

Physical therapists work in a multitude of settings, including hospitals, outpatient clinics, long-term care, pediatric care, and cardiopulmonary and neurological rehabilitation centers. Others go into private practice.

"Wellness is a growing area of practice," Cieminski says. "Therapists are helping people avoid disability by developing flexibility, strength and better aerobic conditioning."

Other growing areas of practice are industry and women's health. In industrial settings, therapists analyze the ergonomics of workstations and help employees stay injury-free. Specialists in women's health help new moms get back in shape and older women strengthen pelvic muscles to avoid incontinence.

Education and outlook

Newly licensed physical therapists complete a doctor of physical therapy degree (DPT). Candidates for the three-year DPT program need an undergraduate degree in any field, including prerequisite courses in anatomy, physiology, biology, psychology, chemistry, physics and statistics.

According to Cieminski, the market for physical therapists is good. "Most of our graduates have multiple job offers," he says.

Nancy Giguere is a freelance writer from St. Paul who has written about healthcare since 1995.