How Do I Become a Hand Therapist?

Tiff Finkle

A hand therapist is a physical rehabilitation professional who specializes in treating conditions or injuries affecting the upper limbs. The steps for becoming a hand therapist are almost exactly the same as those for becoming a general physical therapist or occupational therapist. First and foremost, to become a hand therapist, you must successfully complete a physical or occupational therapy graduate program through an accredited college or university. After obtaining the necessary educational background, you typically will need to pass a nationally required examination to become a licensed physical or occupational therapist. There’s also usually regional licensing or certifications that are needed to legally practice hand therapy.

A model of a human hand.
A model of a human hand.

Individuals typically take one of two education paths to become a hand therapist. After earning a bachelor’s degree in a related field of study, some students choose to enroll in a Master of Occupational Therapy program. More often however, students apply to a master’s or doctoral program after obtaining their bachelor’s degree. Many physical therapy programs have begun phasing out the master’s degree option, so students go directly into the doctoral program after completing their undergraduate studies, skipping over the master’s level. Both occupational and physical therapy programs are offered at a variety of colleges, universities and professional schools.

To legally treat patients, hand therapists typically are required to be nationally licensed as physical or occupational therapists. In some countries, to become licensed, candidates must pass an examination that tests their knowledge and competence. There often are additional certifications or licensing required at the regional level, and these requirements can vary from one region to another.

Hand therapy is a popular specialty for physical or occupational therapists because of the intricacies of the bones, muscles, tendons and other parts of the hand area. You need to be specifically trained to become a hand therapist, because specialized techniques and equipment are needed to provide patients with the best treatment and care. Preparation for such specialties usually involves additional courses that focus on the hand and upper limbs or seminars in a related subject.

Certification is not necessarily required for a therapist to become a hand therapist, but an individual often needs to obtain certification to demonstrate competency in the field. Individuals typically must have a minimum amount of experience in a clinical setting, a certain portion of which should be spent directly practicing hand therapy, to become a Certified Hand Therapist (CHT). Candidates also must pass an examination that covers clinical skills as well as knowledge of the upper quadrant and rehabilitation theories associated with the area. Hand therapists have to recertify after a certain length of time, such as every five years. This ensures that all Certified Hand Therapists remain knowledgeable about the latest developments, findings and techniques.

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