Types of Providers
A physical therapist is defined by the American Physical Therapist Association (APTA) as a professional who is licensed to help patients restore mobility and reduce pain. These providers are more generalists, working with patients of every demographic for a variety of reasons. Physical therapists may be brought in for pre-surgical and post-surgical rehabilitation, injury treatment, or management of chronic diseases, with the goal being to restore physical motion and return patients to their daily routines.
A sports physical therapist, in contrast, is defined as a professional who provides treatment to prevent any injury, though they may also help with rehabilitation. The goal is to help patients achieve maximum levels of functioning, both in sports and in daily life. Sports injury specialists are a separate role who specifically care for injuries sustained during sports. Sports injury is a specialty that can contain both sports physical therapy and sports medicine.
Most athletes seek out physical therapy after they have been injured or started to develop painful conditions as a result of their playing a sport. While this is the right thing to do after an issue appears, one of the greatest benefits of sports physical therapy is the ability to proactively create plans that reduce the risk of injury ever occurring.
The understanding of exercise science, physiology, and biomechanics that a sports physical therapist possesses makes them uniquely suited to this task. These professionals are able to spot muscle instability and weakness that is likely to cause an injury, even when it has not happened yet. With this knowledge, they are able to create prevention programs specifically centered on these vulnerabilities. This may include specific warm-up and cool-down exercises, as well as other exercises for off days. In addition, they can educate athletes on the proper posture and movement, using tools like gait analysis to assess this. Other functional tests and assessments can also be used.
Many professional sports teams employ a full-time sports physical therapist to advise on the prevention of injuries and implement these programs. This close relationship allows the provider to spot injuries early through something like a change in posture or weight distribution. Spotting an injury early can be the difference between missing a single game or an entire season, which is why they are highly valued by these teams. Sports physical therapists also work closely with athletic trainers to create treatment and prevention plans for athletes.
Certain types of analysis can be developed to understand how an athlete’s body is working and make recommendations on improving performance safely. Running analysis and golf swing analysis are common forms of this, relying on advanced technology to profile the current state of an athlete’s performance, develop an improvement program and training protocol, and measure progress over time.
Evaluating and Assessing Injuries
When prevention is not possible, sports physical therapists are able to deeply study the injury to create the right plan of action. They start by performing an in-depth physical evaluation, including an assessment of any current pain. This allows them to find the underlying cause of the pain and diagnose the patient accurately, which is the basis for effective treatment plans.
Initial treatment will focus on pain reduction and management. Once this is achieved, they can pivot to functional and mobility testing that further determines where weaknesses exist. These may be the result of the injury or the cause of the injury, to begin with, but they will be the focus of improvements moving forward. In order to determine this, a sports physical therapist may use video and playback to assess the way stress impacts the body during the sport. For example, if a sport like basketball requires jumping and places stress on the knee, they may closely study the knee for weaknesses that could lead to injury. This step relies heavily on biomechanics and each individual athlete.
An important element of this discipline is that these are not one-time events. Goals and outcomes are measured throughout initial treatment plans and reworked as needed, with ongoing treatment being used to manage any changes or emerging needs over time. Even when the injury has healed, these tools are used to keep athletes safe and healthy moving forward.