November 6, 2023

Physical Therapy Specialties: A Must-Know for Every PT

Welcome to this guide on physical therapy specialties!

In the world of physical therapy, there are various paths that a therapist can pursue to further their career and expertise. These board-certified specializations require additional training and education beyond a general physical therapy degree.

This guide will provide an in-depth overview of different clinical specializations for physical therapists. We will explore what each specialization entails, its scope of practice, and why you might consider pursuing it as a PT.

So, let's dive in and discover the exciting world of physical therapy specialties!

What is a Physical Therapy Specialization?

Physical therapy is a broad topic that covers everything from injury rehabilitation to chronic pain management. There are clinical specializations within this field for physical therapists who have achieved advanced levels of education, Training, experience, and Certification. These PT specialties allow patients to find different types of physical therapists for treating their condition or injury.

In the field of physical therapy, there are eleven board-certified clinical specializations recognized by the American Board of Physical Therapy Specializations (ABPTS).

The Different ABPTS Specializations in Physical Therapy

  • Neurologic Physical Therapy
  • Sports Physical Therapy
  • Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Physical Therapy
  • Women's Health Physical Therapy
  • Pediatric Physical Therapy

Board-Certified Clinical Specialization: What are the Requirements?

Board-certified clinical, physical therapy specialties, granted by the ABPTS are meant to recognize a PTs' advanced knowledge and expertise in specific areas, such as orthopedics, neurology, pediatrics, and sports.

There are numerous board-certified specializations, each with specific requirements before a physical therapist can become certified. These requirements typically include completing additional education, passing a national exam, and completing a specified amount of clinical hours in the field.

PTs are critical in helping patients recover from injuries, surgeries, or illnesses. PTs develop rehab and physical therapy programs, provide manual therapy, and help patients regain strength and mobility. However, some patients may require specialized care or treatments, and that's where Board-Certified Clinical Specialization (BCCS) comes into play.

But what are the requirements for obtaining BCCS, and why is it essential for PTs?

General Requirements

To apply for BCCS, PTs must meet the following general requirements:

  • Hold a permanent, unrestricted license to practice PT in the US.
  • Have a minimum of 2,000 hours of clinical practice in the specialty area that they are applying for in the past ten years.
  • Complete at least 200 hours of relevant continuing education within the last ten years.
  • Pass a comprehensive examination that tests knowledge and clinical reasoning in the specialty area.

Application and Review Fees

The application fee for BCCS is $550. The review fee is $1,000 for ABPTS members and $1,350 for non-members. The fee covers the cost of the application review, including credential verification, record review, and examination development.

Benefits of Being Board-Certified

Being board-certified can enhance a PT's professional status and reputation. It indicates their advanced level of knowledge and expertise in their specialty area. Board-certified PTs may also have increased job opportunities and earning potential. Furthermore, board certification can improve patient trust and satisfaction and provide a competitive advantage when applying for grants or fellowships.

ABPTS Physical Therapy Specialties

types-of-physical-therapist-specialties

Physical therapist specialties can open new doors for your PT practice and attract a completely different pool of patients to your clinic. 

Here are the 11 board-certified physical therapy specialties you should be looking into.

1. Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Clinical Specialist (CCS)

Healthcare professions are dynamic and evolving, especially in cardiac and pulmonary care. In treating patients with cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases, it is important to have a specialist who can provide the highest level of care. The Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Clinical Specialist (CCS) comes in here. 

A CCS is a licensed healthcare professional specializing in cardiac and pulmonary care, providing advanced patient evaluation and treatment.

Their role includes:

  • Offering support to patients and their families.
  • Helping with disease management.
  • Providing knowledge and training to other healthcare professionals.

Patients with cardiac and pulmonary diseases may experience shortness of breath, chest pain, and fatigue. A CCS provides a range of services to make the lives of these patients easier. They may provide breathing exercises, oxygen therapy, and good nutrition and develop programs to help patients manage their conditions.

In Pulmonary Function Testing, a CCS uses various diagnostic tools to assess and diagnose respiratory diseases. Invasive hemodynamic monitoring involves monitoring the blood flow of the heart in patients who are critically ill.

Requirements

To become a CCS Specialist, several requirements must be met. 

  • Pass a written examination consisting of multiple-choice questions as the initial step. 
  • Obtain advanced cardiac life support (ACLS) certification from the American Heart Association after passing the written exam. 
  • Complete a data analysis project or case report based on clinical research to demonstrate analytical and research skills. 
  • Undergo a comprehensive training program, involving classroom instruction, clinical supervision, and hands-on experience with patients. 
  • Achieve a minimum passing score on the examination administered by the American Board of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Medicine (ABCPM). 
  • Certification ensures that a CCS Specialist possesses the knowledge and skills necessary to provide the highest level of care in cardiovascular and pulmonary clinical specialization.

Why should you choose this specialization?

The scope of practice for a CCS is broad and can include a range of specialties, such as Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation, Pulmonary Function Testing, and Invasive Hemodynamic Monitoring. They may design exercise programs, provide patient education, and offer services that help patients develop healthy and sustainable lifestyles.

2. Orthopedic Clinical Specialist (OCS)

Orthopedic Clinical Specialists (OCS) are highly-trained physical therapists specializing in orthopedic physical therapy. They possess advanced knowledge in musculoskeletal anatomy and evidence-based treatments.

OCS therapists diagnose and treat bone, joint, muscle, and tendon-related injuries and conditions. They focus on evaluating movement patterns, muscle strength, and joint mobility, primarily working with those who've had surgery, injuries, or suffer from arthritis, back pain, and chronic discomfort.

OCS therapists play a crucial role in providing personalized treatment plans for patients, addressing their specific needs. Their expertise aids patients in regaining function, reducing pain, and potentially minimizing medication and doctor visits, resulting in cost-effective healthcare solutions.

Requirements

Physical Therapists who want to become an OCS must complete the following: 

  • Graduate from an accredited institution with a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. 
  • Be licensed to practice physical therapy in a specific state by passing a state-mandated licensure exam. 
  • Either complete a clinical residency or enroll in a program leading to Specialist Certification. During this time, you should receive intensive training in orthopedic physical therapy that equates to at least 2000 hours. 
  • After completing the residency program, you must pass a board examination.

Why should you choose this specialization?

OCS can advance your skills and professional standing if you're passionate about orthopedic diagnoses. This is one of the most widely recognized designations by the physician community, so many therapists feel it's worth the effort to pursue. When hiring therapists, many clinics look for OCS-certified therapists specifically. The advantages include more employment opportunities, including teaching. 

3. Neurology Clinical Specialist (NCS)

In today's highly specialized medical landscape, NCSs play an integral part in providing comprehensive neurological care. As professionals knowledgeable about neurological disorders, especially those impacting cognitive and motor ability or causing pain, they provide invaluable technical expertise to patients ranging from children to adults.

From diagnosing conditions and recommending therapies to counseling patients on their treatments and intervening in emergencies, this often collaborative professional makes a real difference for many people living with neurological deficits or diseases.

Neurological injuries or disorders are complex and often require specialized and tailored treatments. That is where NCS comes in. The healthcare provider specializes in treating neurological injuries or disorders like traumatic brain injuries, strokes, spinal cord injuries, Parkinson's disease, and multiple sclerosis.

Their team of experts delivers comprehensive care, including diagnostic testing, physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, and more. It is no wonder that NCS is renowned for excellence in neurological rehabilitation.

Requirements

To become an NCS, you typically need the following:

  • A degree in nursing, physical therapy, occupational therapy, or a related field. 
  • 2000 hours of direct patient care in neurology, or completing an APTA-accredited neurology residency within the past 10 years.
  • The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties offers Certification in Neurology through the Neurology Specialty Council. The American Nurses Credentialing Center offers certification as a Stroke Certified Registered Nurse (SCRN) and a Certified Neuroscience Registered Nurse (CNRN).

Why should you choose this specialization?

The job outlook for NCS is promising, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting employment to grow by 18% between 2019 and 2029. The median annual wage for physical therapists specializing in neurology in May 2020 was $91,010. Registered Nurses, on the other hand, earned a median annual salary of $73,300 in May 2020.

4. Electrophysiological Clinical Specialist (ECS)

specific-physical-therapy-specialties

Electrophysiology is a specialized field of medicine that involves the study of electrical activity within the human body, especially in the heart and nerves. The Electrophysiological Clinical Specialist (ECS) certification program stands out as a professional course that offers rigorous training in the techniques and technologies used in electrophysiology.

As an Electrophysiological Clinical Specialist (ECS), one of the primary responsibilities is to use highly advanced diagnostic tools for patients with nerve and muscle issues. This expertise is significant for individuals experiencing pain or discomfort in these areas, as early diagnosis can be essential for formulating an effective treatment plan.

The ECS credential enables individuals to validate their expertise in performing diagnostic tests, monitoring procedures, and therapeutic interventions related to the body's electrical system.

An ECS plays an essential role in diagnosing and treating patients with arrhythmias, syncope, palpitations, and other heart conditions. They work closely with cardiologists, electrophysiologists, and other healthcare professionals to perform a variety of tests such as electrocardiograms (ECGs), Holter monitor tests, and electrophysiology studies.

An ECS also assists in implanting pacemakers, defibrillators, and cardiac resynchronization devices. To become an ECS, you need specialized training and clinical experience in the field of electrophysiology.

Requirements

To be eligible for the ECS certification, you need the following:

  • A minimum of a bachelor's degree in a related field, such as nursing, biomedical engineering, or physiology. 
  • At least two years of experience in performing non-invasive electrophysiology procedures or one year of experience in performing invasive electrophysiology procedures. 
  • Submit recent patient reports completed within the past 3 years and a testing log documenting the latest 500 complete electroneuromyography examinations within the past 10 years.
  • Must demonstrate competency in clinical electrophysiology by passing the International Board of Heart Rhythm Examiners (IBHRE) exam.

Why should you choose this specialization?

Electrophysiologic Clinical Specialists play a vital role in addressing a niche area of physical therapy, making their expertise highly valuable. With the increasing prevalence of conditions related to compromised skin integrity, these PT specialties ensure therapists are well-prepared to provide specialized and effective care to a growing patient population.

5. Geriatric Clinical Specialist (GCS) 

A Geriatric Clinical Specialist (GCS) is a healthcare professional who specializes in working with older adults. GCSs are typically physical, occupational, or speech-language pathologists who have undergone additional Training and Certification in geriatrics.

GCSs are experts in assessing and treating conditions commonly affecting older adults, such as arthritis, osteoporosis, and dementia. They also comprehensively understand the unique needs and challenges of older adults, including functional decline and cognitive impairment.

From addressing changes in cognitive abilities to managing chronic diseases and mobility issues, GCS providers are well-equipped to provide the support and care essential to maintaining our seniors' health and wellness. Thanks to their extensive training and experience, GCS providers are an indispensable asset to the healthcare community and provide a vital service to older adults in need.

Requirements

Candidates must complete an APTA-accredited geriatrics residency within the past ten years, or 2000 hours of direct patient care in geriatrics within the past 10 years.

Why should you choose this specialization?

GCS is one of the most popular PT specialties amongst people who are seeking physical therapy services. As the elderly population grows, there is a higher demand for PTs specializing in geriatric care.

Pursuing GCS certification offers other benefits outside of financial and job security. Additional benefits include increased expertise in the field and the satisfaction of providing specialized care for a growing population. Overall, GCS is an excellent specialization for PTs who are interested in providing care to older adults.

6. Oncologic Clinical Specialist (OCS)

types-of-physical-therapy-specialties

An Oncologic Clinical Specialist (OCS) is a healthcare professional specializing in caring for cancer patients.

The field of oncology is constantly evolving and complex, requiring expertise in research and caring for patients undergoing treatment. Cancer treatment requires a multidisciplinary approach that involves several healthcare practitioners who work together with the ultimate goal of improving patient outcomes. One of these practitioners is the Oncologic Clinical Specialist (OCS), who plays a crucial role in cancer treatment. 

Requirements

The certification requirements for oncologists include 2000 hours of direct patient care in oncology within the last ten years or a residency in oncology accredited by APTA.

Why should you choose this specialization?

Pursuing a specialization in cutting-edge cancer rehabilitation is a rewarding choice. Working with oncology patients requires internal fortitude to cope with difficult situations, but it also offers deep and lasting connections with patients and their families. 

Professionals find satisfaction in helping patients and families navigate their journey, which fosters personal growth and resilience. With the increasing demand for specialized care, now is an excellent time to start a career in this field.

7. Pediatric Clinical Specialists

Pediatric Clinical Specialists, or PCSs, care for children and adolescents with complex medical conditions. They are highly trained and knowledgeable in various pediatric subspecialties, such as pediatric oncology, cardiology, neurology, and pulmonology.

Their goal is to provide comprehensive care that encompasses medical and psychosocial aspects of child health.

PCSs work closely with other healthcare professionals, such as pediatricians, nurses, and therapists, to provide coordinated care that addresses children's medical and psychosocial needs.

PCSs recognize that children with complex medical conditions require a multidisciplinary approach to their care, which includes social support, mental health services, and education.

Requirements

Becoming a pediatric clinical specialist involves two main requirements. It is required to have 2000 hours of direct patient care in pediatrics within the past 10 years, or to have completed an APTA-accredited pediatrics residency within that period.

Why should you choose this specialization?

PCSs enjoy a competitive salary and are involved in cutting-edge research and innovation that advances pediatric medicine. They are at the forefront of developing new treatments and interventions that improve the outcomes of children with complex medical conditions.

8. Sports Clinical Specialists (SCS)

In sports medicine, many specialists play key roles in keeping athletes healthy and performing at their best. One such specialist is the Sports Clinical Specialist (SCS).

SCSs are healthcare professionals who specialize in preventing, diagnosing, and treating sports-related injuries. These specialists have advanced training in sports medicine and are typically physical therapists or athletic trainers.

This specialized training allows SCSs to develop a deep understanding of the unique demands that sports place on the body and the specific needs and challenges that athletes face.

SCSs are skilled in assessing and managing acute and chronic sports injuries and have a strong understanding of biomechanics, anatomy, and injury prevention. They also work closely with other sports medicine professionals, including team physicians, trainers, and coaches, to provide comprehensive care for athletes.

Requirements

Becoming a SCS has certain prerequisites, such as:

  • Pass an exam on practice expectations and knowledge areas. 
  • Maintain active CPR certification. 
  • Receive training in emergency cardiovascular care. 
  • Hold certification or licensure as athletic trainers, emergency medical responders, paramedics, or emergency medical technicians

Why should you choose this specialization?

Healthcare sports medicine jobs are expected to grow faster than other industries, according to the BLS. In 2022-2032, the BLS projects 10% growth in employment for exercise physiologists, while 14% growth in athletic trainer jobs. 

9. Women's Health Specialist (WHS)

A Women's Health Specialist (WHS) is a medical professional specializing in providing women's healthcare. This type of specialist has specialized training in areas such as gynecology, obstetrics, endocrinology, and reproductive health. Women's health specialists are trained to provide various services, such as annual gynecological exams, breast exams, cervical cancer screenings, and pregnancy management.

They are also trained to diagnose and treat conditions such as menopause, endometriosis, menstrual cycle, and pelvic floor disorders. In addition to providing medical care, women's health specialists also offer advice on healthy living, contraception, and family planning. These specialists play a vital role in the healthcare system by promoting women's healthcare and educating women about their health needs.

Requirements

Applicants must either complete an APTA-accredited women's health residency or have 2000 hours of direct patient care in women's health within the past ten years. 

Why should you choose this specialization?

According to Payscale, the average salary of WHS providers is $84,000 per year. However, salaries can range from $47,000 to $135,000 depending on location, education, experience, and specialty.

Many employers offer desirable benefits packages to their WHS employees, such as health and dental coverage, life insurance, retirement plans, paid time off, and flexible schedules. Additionally, WHS providers can access ongoing education and professional development opportunities to stay up-to-date with medical advancements and provide the best possible care to their patients.

10. Hand Therapy Specialist

The human hand is a complex organ, and its issues can be a significant concern for those who rely on it for their personal or professional lives. Hand therapy specialists are highly trained professionals who provide necessary care for individuals experiencing conditions that affect their ability to perform daily activities.

Hand therapists specialize in treating conditions that affect the hand and upper extremities. They focus on helping patients improve their flexibility, range of motion, and strength. They use various techniques to achieve this, including manual therapy, splinting, and exercise programs.

Hand therapists work with patients who have suffered injuries, undergone surgery, or have a chronic condition like arthritis. They play an essential role in helping people regain the use of their hands and arms to perform everyday tasks like cooking, writing, and driving.

Requirements

Hand therapy specialists do not have exclusive degree programs, but most professionals begin their careers as either occupational or physical therapists. An individual who wishes to become a hand therapy specialist must complete a bachelor's degree in occupational or physical therapy, followed by a master's degree or doctorate. Afterward, a hand therapist must complete a certification program accredited by the Hand Therapy Certification Commission.

Why should you choose this specialization?

According to Payscale, the average salary for a hand therapy specialist in the United States is $86,363 annually, with entry-level professionals starting at $46,000 annually. Salaries may vary depending on an individual's level of education, location, and experience in the field. Job prospects for hand therapy specialists are expected to grow by 29% between 2019 and 2029, much faster than average for healthcare occupations.

In order to stay current with medical advances and treatments, hand therapy specialists need to attend relevant training courses and conferences. Organizations such as the American Society of Hand Therapists offer networking opportunities and career advancement resources.

11. Wound Management Specialist (WMS)

Wounds are common in our lives, and their management plays a significant role in our overall health and well-being. Proper wound management can speed up the healing process and prevent infections, whether it's a minor cut, burn, or major injury. That's why wound management specialists are in high demand worldwide.

A WMS is often a registered nurse or healthcare professional with wound care certification. Their primary role includes identifying different types of wounds, wound assessment, and examination of the underlying causes.

WMSs play a significant role in addressing various wound-related concerns and promoting early wound healing. They work in different clinical settings, such as long-term care facilities, hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and home care. Some of their duties and responsibilities include proper treatment and care of acute and chronic wounds, managing pain, identifying potential complications, preparing and maintaining medical records, and educating patients.

Requirements

To become a WMS, one must be a licensed practical nurse (LPN), registered nurse (RN), or an advanced practice nurse (APRN). They should possess at least an associate degree in nursing (ADN). 

Then, the next step is to gain certification in wound care. Organizations such as the Wound, Ostomy, and Continence Nursing Certification Board (WOCNCB) and the American Board of Wound Management (ABWM) provide wound care certification. The WOCNCB offers a Wound Care Certification (WCC), which requires at least two years of clinical experience.

In contrast, the ABWM offers Wound Care Certified (WCC) and Certified Wound Specialist Physician (CWSP) certifications. Some nursing schools provide wound care certification with varying levels of practice.

Why should you choose this specialization?

The national average salary of a Wound Management Specialist in the United States is $90,400 per year. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there will be an 8% job growth for registered nurses, which includes Wound Management Specialists, from 2019-2029.

Bottom line

Physical therapy specialties offer PTs an exciting and rewarding opportunity to deepen their knowledge, expand their professional capabilities, and open doors to a much broader patient population. We hope this guide has provided a comprehensive overview of the various types of physical therapist specializations available.

With so many options, narrowing down the choices can be difficult. However, learning more about each field is a great way to discover what specialization best suits your interests and abilities.

No matter what path you choose, expanding your knowledge through one of these certifications will undoubtedly open new doors for your professional growth. So take this inspiring journey and make the most of it!