How To Decode the Letters Behind Your Physical Therapist's Name
by Alisa Smith, PT, MPT
When you're looking for a physical therapist, you want to find the right provider, the first time around. You want someone who's not just good, but who is a good fit for you. After all, finding the right PT translates to you reaching your goals and getting back to your normal life as soon as possible.
So you get recommendations, read provider bios, look at skills, years of experience, and find patient reviews. But then you see the letters—that long list of letters that medical professionals often put after their names. It can make your head spin when you see all the physical therapist title abbreviations!
What do all the letters behind a PT's name mean? And how do you get started deciphering them? Read on to learn more about those letters so that you can pick the right clinician!
- All the Letter's Behind a PT's Name
- The Foundation of Physical Therapist Abbreviations
- What is a DPT vs. MPT?
- The Big Nine Initials After Your Physical Therapist's Name
- Everything Else
- The Bottom Line for PT Abbreviations
- It's Time to Find Your PT
You know all those letters are supposed to tell you something. They're supposed to help you make an informed decision about your health care. But too often we look at those letters and don't feel empowered, but instead feel . . . confused.
What's a GCS, and how's that different from an NCS (which I thought was the name of a television show)? And what will a CEAS do for me that an FAFS won't (and wasn't an FAFS something I filled out for financial aid in college)?
You're just wanting to find someone who can effectively address your pain and/or mobility, but instead you end up spending precious time trying to decode an alphabet soup worth of seemingly random letters. And even if you happen to figure out what the letters stand for, how are you supposed to know what they mean? How do those letters translate into practical skills that will help make you whole again?
Quickly Decode a Physical Therapist Title to Get the Treatment You Need
If you'll give us the next five minutes, we'll tell you everything you need to know to interpret the letters, decide on a provider, and make the right choice—the first time around.
That can translate to 5 hours of saved time going down a rabbit hole while looking at a list of providers. Ultimately, this means more time spent feeling your best and less time feeling like you're going in circles or picked the wrong therapist.
First, any physical therapist who puts the letters "PT" after their name is telling you something important. They're telling you that they've gone to college and graduate school for at least six or seven total years. They're also telling you they have passed the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE); a five-hour, 250-item exam that tests a person's knowledge of various systems (cardiovascular, pulmonary, musculoskeletal, neuromuscular, nervous, integumentary, metabolic, endocrine, gastrointestinal, genitourinary, and lymphatic), equipment and technologies, therapeutic modalities, safety, evidence-based practice, and professional responsibilities.
Basically, anyone who passes the NPTE knows a lot about how to the treat the body.
And that's not to mention, depending on the number of years a therapist has been practicing, the dozens of continuing education courses they've had to take to maintain their license.
After the letters "PT" you're likely to see one of two things:
MPT: Master of Physical Therapy
This indicates the provider likely completed their two to three years of graduate study before the early 2000s, when graduate programs shifted from an MPT to a DPT.
DPT: Doctor of Physical Therapy
This indicates the provider likely completed their three years of graduate education since the early 2000s. (Essentially, graduate schools were encouraged to begin offering doctoral degrees instead of master's degrees. Both the MPT and the DPT generally require three years of year-round study, which includes multiple clinical rotations.)
Is One Better Than the Other?
If you're asking yourself which abbreviation is considered better, there definitely isn't a straightforward answer. While DPTs may have had a more comprehensive curriculum (although this isn't always true), MPTs have been working in the field as clinicians longer and have more hand-on patient experience. A PT's personality, clinical experience, and other credentials may play a bigger role in determining if they're a good fit for you.
Now the Abbreviation Party Begins
After MPT/DPT, the alphabet soup begins. While there are an ever-growing number of specializations and certifications that a therapist can receive, there are really two big categories to know about:
- The Big Nine: In-depth, specialist certifications earned through the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties
- Everything Else: A range of specific, skill-based treatment approaches
Each of these nine specialty certifications requires three things:
- Around 2,000 hours of direct patient care within the past 10 years that are related directly to that specialty area
- A significant period of self-study to ensure that the certificate holder is at the forefront of the latest developments in clinical practice
- Passing a specialty examination related to that area of practice
In other words, these nine certifications are no joke. And even once you receive one, you then have to go through additional study in order to recertify the specialization every ten years.
The Big Nine are (in alphabetical order):
CCS (Board Certified Clinical Specialist in Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Physical Therapy)
These letters mean your therapist has advanced training in treating patients with heart or breathing problems. If you've had a heart attack or undergone open heart surgery, have Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) or other respiratory diseases, you may want to look for a therapist with these letters.
ECS (Board Certified Clinical Specialist in Electrophysiologic Physical Therapy)
These letters mean your therapist can use specialized treatments known as EMG (Electromyography) and NCS (Nerve Conduction Studies) to help assess and treat nerve and muscle injuries. If you have wounds, muscle spasms, neuromuscular disorders, or chronic pain that doesn't seem to be getting better, a therapist with these credentials will have specialized skills to help.
GCS (Board Certified Clinical Specialist in Geriatric Physical Therapy)
This means your PT is dedicated to best practices for the elderly population. If you're looking for treatment related to osteoporosis, arthritis, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease, balance disorders, or other needs commonly associated with aging adults, a therapist with these credentials can help.
NCS (Board Certified Clinical Specialist in Neurologic Physical Therapy)
These letters mean your therapist has specialized skills in treating stroke, muscular dystrophy, spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis (MS), Parkinson's, Guillain-Barre syndrome, or other neurologic impairments.
OCS (Board Certified Clinical Specialist in Orthopaedic Physical Therapy)
A therapist with these credentials has specialized training in the treatment of arthritis, bursitis, frozen shoulder, plantar fasciitis, back and neck pain, and more. They also specialize in pre and post-op care for surgeries related to orthopaedic conditions, such as rotator cuff repair, total joint surgeries, or ACL reconstruction.
PCS (Board Certified Clinical Specialist in Pediatric Physical Therapy)
These letters mean your therapist has advanced training to treat patients under 18 years of age, from newborns to teens. This includes both developmental disorders and orthopedic disorders.
SCS (Board Certified Clinical Specialist in Sports Physical Therapy)
If you have a sports or exercise related injury (pulled muscles, shin splints, tendonitis, tears/repairs, ankle sprains, knee sprains, fractures, concussion, wounds, etc.) these therapists can help. They are also experts at injury prevention, education, and acute injury management.
WCS (Board Certified Clinical Specialist in Women's Health Physical Therapy)
These therapists have specialized training to treat pelvic floor dysfunction and pain, bowel/bladder incontinence, pre and postpartum musculoskeletal related issues, low back/SI joint pain, pain during sexual activity, and other conditions unique to women throughout their lifespan.
OPT (Board Certified Clinical Specialist in Oncologic Physical Therapy)
If you have physical impairments, side effects, or pain from cancer or cancer treatments (surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, etc.), these therapists can help. They also specialize in lymphedema management (swelling), a common side effect from treatments like chemotherapy.
In addition to the Big Nine, there are many other specific certifications available to physical therapists. Items on the list below usually require that the therapist take multiple continuing education courses and then pass a comprehensive written or practical exam to show proficiency in that specific skill. Some of the most common ones you will see are:
ART (Active Release Techniques)
A method of breaking up scar tissue through a combination of manipulation and movement to treat the body’s soft tissue.
ATC (Certified Athletic Trainer)
A certified and licensed health professional that practices in the field of sports medicine. They specialize in the guidance, prevention, and recovery of injured athletes.
CCVT/CVT (Certified Clinical Vestibular Therapist/Clinical Vestibular Therapist)
A PT that treats vertigo (dizziness and loss of balance) related to the inner ear, neck problems, and/or concussion.
CFC (Craniofacial Certification)
A physical therapist that treats disorders that involve the head, neck, and face- such as Bell’s palsy and temporomandibular dysfunction.
CEAS I or II (Certified Ergonomic Assessment Specialist)
analyzes and suggests improvements to common workplace activities (sitting, lifting, reaching, pushing, etc)
CFCE/FCE (Certified Functional Capacity Evaluator)
A medical profssional that evaluates a patient’s ability to perform specific work-related activities.
CFMT (Certified Functional Manual Therapist)
A PT that evaluates problems with your movement that contribute to pain, decreased mobility, and degenerative changes- utilizing a hands-on approach to address any deficits found.
CHT (Certified Hand Therapist)
This training is more commonly associated with an Occupational Therapist (OT), including treatment for conditions affecting the hands and upper extremities.
CIDN (Certified in Dry Needling)
This training involves the use of thin needles (similar to the size of an acupuncture needle) to penetrate the skin and reach affected muscle tissue. The goal is to reduce localized pain and inactivate trigger points (knots).
CKTP (Certified Kinesio Taping Practitioner)
A PT specialized in using elastic therapeutic tape to provide support, ease pain, reduce swelling, and improve performance.
CLT/CLT-LANA (Certified Lymphedema Therapist)
A medical professional that treats and manages lymphedema (swelling) through a range of techniques.
COMT (Certified Orthopedic Manual Therapist)
A PT that utilizes hands-on techniques for soft tissue work (such as muscle), joint mobilization, and manipulation.
CMP (Certified Mulligan Practitioner)
A specific manual therapy treatment approach combining active movement and joint mobilization to improve a patient's functional range of motion and movement.
CSCS (Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist)
These therapists use scientific knowledge to train athletes to improve athletic performance.
CST/CST-D (Craniosacral Therapy Diplomate)
The use of a gentle hands-on techniques to examine the membranes and movement of the fluids in and around the central nervous system (the brain and spine). The goal is to relieve neural tension and boost overall health and immunity.
FAAOMPT (Fellow of the American Academy of Orthopedic Manual Physical Therapists)
This involves advanced training in hands-on physical therapy skills to treat common joint and muscle related injures.
FAFS (Fellow of Applied Functional Science)
This certification evaluates physical motions to determine the points of breakdown in the body that can lead to injury (aka the weakest areas that are contributing to injury or pain).
GCFP (Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitioner)
These PTs use gentle, mindful movement to help people move with greater efficiency to prevent or manage pain.
ITPT (ImPACT Trained Physical Therapist for Concussion Management)
A PT trained in comprehensive concussion care.
JSCC (Jones Strain Counterstrain Certified)
A treatment method that decreases pain by using specific manual techniques (hands-on) with specific positioning of muscles. This helps to reduce trigger points and spasms in muscles.
LSVT (Lee Silverman Voice Technique Certified)
A therapist with a a specific set of evidenced based treatment techniques to to improve communication and movement in those with Parkinson's disease.
MDT (Diploma in McKenzie Method of Mechanical Diagnosis and Therapy)
An exercise-based approach of assessing and treating back and neck pain, particularly pain that radiates into the arms and legs.
NDT (Neuro-developmental Treatment Certified)
This is a hands-on approach to improve whole-body movements in children and adults with neurological problems (cerebral palsy, stroke, head injury, etc.).
SFMA (Selective Functional Movement Assessment Certified)
This means that your therapist is trained to evaluate faulty movement patterns to find the root cause of pain.
You now know what the alphabet soup of letters stands for. But more importantly, you know what the letters mean, and how they translate into specific, practical skills.
As you read through the list, perhaps a few of the meanings behind the letters caught your attention. You now have a great place to start to choose a PT that will help you optimize your outcomes.
There is no such thing as the perfect PT. However, there just might be the perfect PT specifically for you—that is if you understand what they truly have to offer.
At CityPT, we work with therapists with a wide range of skill sets, clinical practice, personal experience and more. With this information, you can now find a CityPT therapist whose skills and training matches your needs. And you can make the right choice, the first time.
Before you go, please read our disclaimer. This blog is intended for informational purposes only. We are not providing legal or medical advice and this blog does not create a provider-patient relationship. Do not rely on our blog (or any blog) for medical information. Always seek the help of a qualified medical professional who has assessed you and understands your condition.