The field of physical therapy is fairly broad, and when you are working towards a physical therapy degree, you may consider specializing in one of the different types of physical therapy so that you can work with certain types of patients or excel in a particular area. Physical therapy is a specialized treatment program designed to improve range of motion and functioning of the joints and muscles after injury or disease.

Physical therapy is often used as part of the rehabilitation process and may involve exercise, manual therapy, cold and heat therapy and specialized treatments to address certain conditions or health problems. Learning about the different types of physical therapy can make it easier for you to choose an educational or career path that you are most interested in.

Understanding Types of Physical Therapy

Most people think of a physical therapist as someone who helps those who are injured during sports, or to restore range of motion after an accident. However, there are many other branches of physical therapy that provide treatment for a wide range of issues, diseases and concerns such as cancer, balance disorders, Alzheimer's disease, stroke-related problems, motor skills in children and cardiovascular rehabilitation.

Since the field of physical therapy covers several different types or specialties for treatment, you may want to choose just one or two areas of focus at some point during your career. Many licensed physical therapists work towards certification in a particular field, and research different types of physical therapy to determine what types of groups they want to work with, and what types of diseases or disorders they are most interested in treating. Orthopedic physical therapy is among the most commonly-known types of physical therapy.

Types Identified by the American Board of Physical Therapy

Even though there are many types of physical therapy, the American Board of Physical Therapy (ABPT) identifies eight specialties that physical therapists can get certification for. The ABPT identifies the following eight types of physical therapy:

  • Cardiovascular and pulmonary - treatment is designed to increase endurance and functional independence
  • Clinical electrophysiology - involves an electrophysiological evaluation and may also involve wound management practices
  • Geriatric - addresses the needs of aging adults
  • Integumentary - treatment of conditions that involve the skin and related organs
  • Neurological - working with individuals that have a neurological disorder such as Parkinson's disease, cerebral palsy or a serious brain injury
  • Orthopedic - treatment, diagnoses and management of injuries to the musculoskeletal system
  • Vestibular - treatment for reducing the symptoms associated with vestibular conditions, often used in conjunction with neurological and orthopedic programs
  • Pediatric - diagnosis, treatment and management of infants, children and adolescents
  • Women's health - addresses issues associated with child birth and the postpartum phase

Some physical therapists are trained to perform very specialized treatments to address concerns after a disease or illness. For example, the physical therapist may be trained to perform the lymphatic drainage massage technique which helps to reduce swelling when he lymph system is not draining fluid properly from the tissues. Wound care techniques may involve electrical stimulation or oxygen treatment. Various certification and advanced training programs provide physical therapists with the skills they need to succeed in a particular specialization or when focusing their career on various types of physical therapy.