Sidelined with a sports-related injury? Sports physical therapy will help you get back in the game. Countless scientific studies have proven that sports physical therapy is the safest and most-effective type of treatment for nearly all sports-related injuries.
Whether you’re injury developed gradually or suddenly, is minor or severe, a sports physical therapist can get you back in the game stronger than ever.
Sports physical therapists are experts in sports-related pain and injuries. They can pinpoint the underlying cause of the pain (such as overused and unconditioned muscles) to provide athletes the best treatment.
Strength and conditioning exercises that target the injured area are an important part of a sports physical therapy program. These exercises help prevent re-injury and other injuries from developing.
Sports physical therapists can treat almost any sport-related injury. This guide will cover everything you need to know about sports physical therapy, including:
- What you can expect from a sports physical therapy program
- How a sports physical therapist makes an accurate diagnosis
- The most common injuries treated by sports physical therapists (& their symptoms)
- Which techniques a sport physical therapist will use to treat you
What You Can Expect from Sports Physical Therapy
When you find a physical therapist who specializes in sports physical therapy, you can feel confident that you’re working with a healthcare professional who has specific experience and training in treating sports-related injuries.
You can expect an accurate diagnosis of your injury, periodic functional testing, and a plan tailored to your injury and lifestyle. This will ensure that you’re getting the least invasive and most effective type of treatment for your injury.
A physical therapist who specializes in sports injuries is your go-to healthcare professional for just about any sports-related injury. Both professional and non-professional athletes are recommended sports physical therapy as a first-line treatment.
During your initial appointment, your physical therapist will ask you questions related to your injury, guide you through a physical exam, and take you through range-of-motion tests. Your physical therapist will use these questions and tests to diagnose your injury and determine what caused it.
Understanding Your Injury
Your injury can have more than one cause. For example, many runners who suddenly increase their weekly mileage and add more speed workouts may suffer an injury because of the rapid overload.
An abrupt increase in the intensity of training and changes in the type of movement you’re doing (such as adding jumps into your routine) are both common reasons why injuries appear in athletes.
The amount of time you’ll spend rehabilitating your injury will depend on the type of injury you have and the severity of the injury. It is important to follow a physical therapy program through its entirety since many athletes who don’t end up hurting themselves again (sometimes worse than before).
Injuries can cause imbalances in different muscles. Some athletes who have an injury are subconsciously favoring the injured part of their body and putting more weight on the non-injured part. This act of favoring can lead to further imbalances and increase the risk of other types of injuries.
A sports physical therapist is trained to identify muscular imbalances. Even if you’re unaware that you’re favoring one side of the body (for example, bearing slightly more weight on the left leg due to a hamstring strain in the right leg), a sports physical therapist can catch this detail and prevent you from favoring your injury.
Once your physical therapist sees that you are well-conditioned, healed, and balanced, he or she will give you the “OK” to return to sport. It is important that you follow the physical therapist’s directions for your return process.
Your physical therapist will give you a specific plan to follow so that you are returning to your sport gradually. For example, a runner who normally runs 60 miles a week and had to stop running for two weeks due to an injury might only run 10-20 miles during the first week back to running. From there, the physical therapist will assess how the runner is doing with the low mileage and recommend gradually increasing the mileage.
If the runner carefully follows the physical therapist’s directions, odds are that the runner will return to his or her goal mileage stronger than ever before. The muscular conditioning that the runner had performed in physical therapy will ensure that this runner’s body is more resilient to all types of injury (given that the runner does not make any sudden changes to their exercise routine).
No matter what sport you play, consistency is key. Inconsistency in training, such as only playing soccer for 30 minutes on the weekend and then deciding to suddenly play every day for an hour can lead to injury. This is because your body did not have time to adapt to the increase in exertion.
Many injuries are caused by increasing the exertion level or duration of the sport too quickly for the body to adjust.
Your physical therapist will ask you questions related to your injury during your initial visit.
Below are types of questions that your physical therapist will ask to help him or her make an accurate diagnosis and prediction of the underlying cause:
What Makes Your Injury Better or Worse?
There are many factors that can make a sports-related injury better or worse, including:
- Poor posture
- Repetitive motion
- Poor sleep habits
- Improper warm-up
- Improper athletic attire
- Delaying treatment after symptoms first appear
A physical therapist will ask questions related to the above factors to make an accurate diagnosis and pinpoint the underlying cause.
Certain injuries that have similar symptoms can be distinguished from one another based on how the patient feels during certain movements and activities. Some specific questions your physical therapist may ask include:
- “Do you feel pain while sitting or sleeping?”
- “Do you feel pain during your athletic activity?”
- “Do you feel pain after your athletic activity?”
- “Are there poses that make your pain feel worse?”
Your answers to these questions will guide the therapist in making a precise diagnosis and determining what leads to the injury.
Your physical therapist will also need to know how long you’ve experienced the symptoms and/or pain. Typically, the longer you continue your athletic activity on an injury, the worse the injury becomes.
It’s understandable that athletes do not want to stop participating in their sport due to an injury that feels minor. However, these athletes are usually sidelined later with a much more serious injury as a result of delaying treatment for the injury. It is not until the injury is severe that these athletes finally seek treatment.
Ignoring an injury can convert a minor injury into a serious one. Your physical therapist will need to know if you’ve ignored your symptoms for a while so that he or she can assign the appropriate treatment plan.
Your physical therapist will ask if you’ve tried any treatments for your injury. If so, your therapist will want to know which treatments worked and which didn’t work.
Common treatments that patients try before seeing a physical therapist include heat/cold packs, medications, rest, or surgery. Some patients notice that the injury feels better with certain treatments (such as medications or rest) but returns the moment that the treatment ends.
An injury that returns right after stopping a treatment usually means that the treatment treated the symptoms and not the cause of the injury. Many doctors (who are not physical therapists) recommend treatments such as medications which fix the symptoms rather than heal the injury itself.
A sports physical therapist will ensure that your physical therapy program heals the injury so that you return to your sport rehabilitated and symptom-free.
After the initial questions, your physical therapist will guide you through a physical exam and series of tests.
First, your physical therapist will look at the injured area to see if there are any visible signs of injury such as swelling or deformity.
Range of Motion Test
Next, your physical therapist will take you through a range of motion test. This test will reveal how far you can move your body. Physical therapists often notice a lack of mobility in the joints and poor flexibility around the injured area.
During the range of motion test, your physical therapist may lightly press a goniometer against your skin. A goniometer is a ruler-like device used to measure a joint’s range of motion.
A functional test reveals how well you can physically function with your injury. You will perform various types of physical activities during a functional test. Your physical therapist may also ask you to push inwards/outwards on