What is Sports Physical Therapy?
Updated: Apr 23
Most people who participate in athletic activities will tend to injure themselves at one point or another and when doing so, may need sports physical therapy (PT). Sports PT is a dynamic branch of physical medicine that focuses on the different types of injuries that are generally associated with athletes. Sports PT, also known as sports therapy, is one of the most commonly known specializations in the field. A sports physical therapist focuses on improving the way an athlete or a very active person moves, whether that’s by using agility exercises or improving range of motion (ROM). This is the specialty that people assume all PT’s work in, once you tell them you’re a physical therapist-- that is to say if they’re unknowledgeable of the profession itself. General PTs are able to aid in the rehabilitation of an injury, however, a sports physical therapist is trained to deal with the injuries and physiological aspects of sports and exercise.
The population covered by these physical therapists are generally athletes (professional, too!), but as mentioned before, a person who considers themselves very active can be treated by them. Since athletes are the majority within this setting, most sports PT clinics are based inside schools and gyms, depending on the needs of the community. This being said, you can still find a sports medicine PT in a stand alone clinic, maybe in a popular college town or on the sidelines of your favorite sports team!
Of course, these PT’s treat patients with common sport injuries such as an ACL tear, but can also treat patients with heart conditions and concussions. Other common conditions may include achilles tendon tears, compound and simple fractures, shin splints, and tennis elbow (tendinitis). Although not as common and not quite considered a sports injury, a sports PT may also treat osteoarthritis. The painful symptoms of this condition is caused by the swelling and stiffness of the joints. Frequent impacts on the joints may escalate the seriousness of the issue. Physical activities that involve such repeated impact on the joints such as marathon running may lead to osteoarthritis.
Before a PT can create a plan of care for the athlete, the therapist will first conduct an evaluation. The evaluation will include a pain assessment if pain is present. During a pain and injury assessment, the PT will find the underlying reason of where the pain is stemming from and give a proper diagnosis. Also, during this evaluation, the PTs will assess strength, flexibility, power, stamina, posture, speed, balance, and agility on a sport-specific basis. After the pain subsides or is significantly reduced, the PT may include functional and mobility testing in order to determine any weaknesses and any areas in need of improvement. This type of testing will usually include a video and playback in order to test the areas of the body that are most prone to stress during a specific movement of the sport.
During the initial phases of the injury, a sports PT will focus their treatment towards pain control. This includes reducing the swelling and regaining proper, normal motion and strength. However, sports PT goes much beyond symptom management and post-operative care. As treatment progression occurs and the athlete becomes stronger, the PT may now start focusing on performing functional activities and movements.