By Adam Smith
When Carley Mills hurt her shoulder playing basketball in the eighth grade, her days of shooting hoops were soon over. But she says the injury helped her discover what would become her future career: physical therapy.
When a physical therapist helped her recover, she became impressed with the profession that mixes science, medicine and movement to help patients heal from an injury or to gain independence from a disability.
“I was able to avoid … surgery heading into high school sports,” said Mills, 26, joking that she also realized her 5-foot, 2-inch frame wasn’t fit for playing center.
Mills, who in May completed a physical therapy program at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, now works at Marathon Physical Therapy and Sports Medicine in Norton, where she helps patients recovering from shoulder, knee and other injuries.
The recent graduate not only found a career she loves, but one that is among the most rapidly growing professions in the nation. The demand for therapists is expected to increase by 34 percent over the next eight years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Demand for physical therapy assistants and aides is predicted to grow even more rapidly, according to the bureau.
The profession is growing in popularity because of an aging baby boomer population that wants to stay active, according to Anita Bemis-Dougherty, the vice president of practice for the American Physical Therapy Association. Another reason is that physical therapy is increasingly seen as a way to treat chronic and common conditions such as obesity, arthritis and back pain.
“As we age — now as compared to in previous generations — we want to remain active and fit,” said Diane Jette, the associate chairwoman of the physical therapy department at the MGH Institute of Health Professions. “It used to be that if I were in my 70s … I’d have felt that I’d earned my right to sit in the rocking chair.”
Since first entering the field some 40 years ago, Jette has seen demand grow for her expertise. At the same time, she said, she’s seen her profession mature into one that’s comprehensive and highly skilled.
“When I graduated in 1972, the requirement was a baccalaureate, then it moved to a master’s … and then there was a huge push that we needed more education and it went to a clinical doctorate degree.”
Today, therapists can advance their study to help people with a wide variety of injuries or neurological disorders, according to Bemis-Dougherty, including common sprains, strains and fractures, as well as disabilities caused by a stroke or cerebral palsy and even wound care.
Earning a doctor of physical therapy degree typically requires three years of study and clinical work after completing a bachelor’s degree. Sciences such as biomechanics, anatomy, physiology, neuroscience and pharmacology are required coursework. But the extra study pays off. The median yearly salary for the job is more than $84,000.
Those without the means or will required to complete the seven years of school can elect to become a physical therapist assistant, which typically requires only an associate’s degree — though the job pays less, around $42,000 per year.
Many of Jette’s students are those who are launching their second careers, the professor said.
“We have students who come in with degrees in business or dance,” she said. “I have a student who built downtown high-rises … they’re looking for something more meaningful in their life.”
Therapists can choose from jobs in a variety of places, including hospitals, hospices, schools, clinics and universities. They can work with kids, adults, the elderly, professional athletes and couch potatoes alike.
“It’s really a wonderful career, because it’s flexible and you can over time change your career focus,” said Maura Daly Iversen, a professor and chairperson of the Department of Physical Therapy, Movement and Rehabilitation Science at Northeastern University. Daly Iversen said her own career has come to focus heavily on the research side of the field, and much of that has involved proving the effectiveness of physical therapy and movement to treat arthritis pain.
“There was once a fear that exercise could hurt someone with arthritis,” she said, adding that now it’s seen as beneficial to increasing ability and reducing pain.
Physical therapy is also increasingly becoming viewed as an alternative to medication for several other conditions, said Deirdra Murphy, associate dean for undergraduate studies at UMass Lowell’s College of Health Sciences.
“One thing that’s really exciting is when you think about it in relation to the opioid crisis,” Murphy said. Opioid-based drugs, she said, are largely ineffective for lower back pain, but they are often prescribed for it. Physical therapy, on the other hand, “is a really cost-effective alternative to opioids,” she said.
These new applications for physical therapy are also helping to fuel its demand, those in the field say.
And the variety of uses for the therapy is vast.
Jessica Rihm, a 21-year-old physical therapy student in Northeastern University’s accelerated six-year program, said she was introduced to the profession when her brother was receiving care as a baby for a muscular impairment.
“He showed a lot of improvements,” said Rihm, who later, as a teenager, came in contact with the therapist who showed her more about the work.
Now, Rihm said she plans to work in pediatrics once she completes her studies in three years.
“I really like how physical therapy is about helping people regain their independence,” she said.