Physical Therapist Assistants in Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation

Cardiovascular and pulmonary—cardiopulmonary—physical therapy focuses on individuals diagnosed with cardiovascular (of the heart) and pulmonary (of the lungs) ailments or diseases. Cardiopulmonary physical therapy achieved the distinction of being the first recognized clinical specialty within the field of physical therapy in 1978.

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Cardiopulmonary physical therapy provides health, wellness, prevention, and/or rehabilitative services to patients of all ages who are at risk for, or diagnosed with, cardiovascular or pulmonary impairments.

Just a few of the diseases treated via cardiopulmonary physical therapy include:

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Acute and chronic respiratory ailments
  • Diabetes
  • Vascular disease
  • Cystic Fibrosis
  • Hypertension
  • Heart disease

Physical therapy for the cardiovascular and pulmonary systems also serves patients recovering from a number of surgeries and procedures:

  • Heart valve replacement
  • Bypass surgery
  • Coronary stent placement
  • Lung/heart transplant


Benefits of Physical Therapy for Cardiopulmonary Patients

Because the primary function of the cardiopulmonary system is to deliver oxygen to the body’s active tissues, it plays an important part in movement. In fact, in the presence of a disease or abnormality, the cardiopulmonary system is often the primary factor of the limitation of functional activities. Physical therapy aims to increase movement and improve oxygen intake, cardiovascular and pulmonary health, and increased quality of life.

Physical therapist assistants address a wide array of conditions affecting the cardiovascular and/or pulmonary system. Physical therapy often has clear benefits (as reported by the Susan G. Komen Foundation):

    • Pulmonary Physical Therapy:
      • Pulmonary physical therapy has been shown to improve shortness of breath, quality of life, and strategies for coping with COPD.
      • COPD therapy has been shown to have a beneficial effect in terms of improved tolerance to exercise and improved quality of life.


  • Cardiovascular Physical Therapy:
    • Cardiovascular physical therapy has been shown to improve peak oxygen consumption, work rate, general cardiovascular health, and distance walked in a specific amount of time.
    • Both supervised and home-based therapies can enhance exercise capacity in patients with chronic heart failure.


The Work of Physical Therapist Assistants in Cardiopulmonary Physical Therapy

Physical therapist assistants, under the guidance and supervision of licensed physical therapists, focus on the prevention and management of primary and secondary diagnoses involving the cardiopulmonary system. These professionals of rehab medicine generally treat patients with one or more chronic medical conditions that result in:

  • Impairments
  • Dysfunction
  • Disability
  • Increased risk of pathologic conditions

Physical therapist assistants in cardiovascular and pulmonary physical therapy are important members of a patient’s healthcare team. The team works collaboratively to design a program that takes into account the patient’s medical diagnosis and goals for treatment. The overreaching goal of a cardiopulmonary physical therapy programs is to help patients continue to live independently and continue their roles in the home, at work, and in the community.

Physical therapist assistants in clinical practice address:

Primary Prevention: Involves implementing interventions that can help prevent cardiopulmonary diseases from developing, even among individuals with risk factors (e.g., cigarette smoking, inactivity, etc.)

Secondary Intervention: Involves intervening in the presence of known, overt cardiopulmonary disease; physical therapists focus on reducing symptoms and/or slowing the progression of the disease

Physical therapist assistants evaluate and provide treatment for patients with chronic medical conditions that have restricted their activities because of symptoms, illness, or hospitalization. This deconditioning causes impairment due to their reduced aerobic capacity, which can then lead to disability.

Physical therapist assistants in cardiovascular and pulmonary perform evaluations that include:

  • A review of the patient’s history, including medical history and any hospitalizations
  • A review of the patient’s medication
  • A review of the patient’s risk factors (smoking, inactivity, drug use etc.)
  • An assessment of heart and lung function tests
  • Tests to measure the patient’s exercise capacity
  • An assessment of muscle strength tests
  • An evaluation of the patient’s balance and risk of falling


Education, Training, and Certification Opportunities

Physical therapist assistants may specialize in their profession by achieving the American Physical Therapy Association’s (APTA) PTA Recognition of Advanced Proficiency in cardiovascular and pulmonary.

Physical therapist assistants working toward the PTA Recognition of Advanced Proficiency must be APTA members and achieve advanced proficiency in four categories:

  • Education
  • Continuing Education
  • Job Performance
  • Community Service/Leadership

Candidates for PTA Recognition of Advanced Proficiency must show proof of at least 5 years of work experience (at least 2,000 hours), and at least 500 hours in the past year in cardiovascular/pulmonary.

Physical therapist assistants who haven’t yet achieved advanced proficiency in cardiovascular and pulmonary can begin to build their resume by taking continuing education courses in cardiopulmonary physical therapy and working in cardiopulmonary physical therapy settings, such as:

  • Rehabilitation centers
  • Assisted living facilities/nursing homes
  • Hospitals/acute care settings
  • Homecare

Physical therapist assistants may find courses and other educational opportunities in cardiopulmonary physical therapy through the Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Section of the American Physical Therapy Association.

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