Sports physical therapy is a very specific treatment type for those who have injured themselves while engaging in some type of sporting activity. From professional players to those who just play for fun, at some point, almost every person will visit a sports therapist. They also assist those who are active get better at their activity when they have a disability.
Sports physical therapists are usually also involved in the care of athletes who compete on a professional level. They manage the injuries of these athletes and help them work on their weaknesses so that they can advance in their careers. Generally, physical therapy is rehabilitative, so professional athletes use it when they have been injured playing in their particular sport. It can also be used to improve one’s physical abilities.
What Does Sports Physical Therapy Focuses On?
Sports physical therapy has to have certain areas of focus to help athletes and those who love physical activity recover from injuries quickly and get back to what they love doing. Some of these areas include:
- Speed – this is absolutely vital especially for professional athletes since often, it is their speed that allows them to excel. Especially when it comes to track athletes and other runners speed can be the difference between a gold medal and last place, and so using physical therapy to increase speed is often number one of the list of needs of all athletes.
- Mobility – the movement of certain body parts can become inhibited by injury or by the buildup of lactic acid. A pitcher in a baseball game for example, may find it harder and harder to rotate his shoulder, and this is when it becomes so important to use physical therapy. Without full mobility in a certain body part, it becomes close to impossible to keep up standards of performance, and for professional athletes this could mean the end of their careers.
- Balance – the importance of the core muscles in the human body cannot be stressed enough. Besides assisting in posture maintenance, the core, in conjunction with the ear canals, assist in good balance. How important is good balance? Well consider what would happen to a javelin thrower who did not have good balance. In their run up to throw the javelin they would be off kilter and would struggle to build up power for a good throw. Even for someone who played touch football, balance would be vital since without good balance, they would struggle to run in a straight line.
- Strength – the benefits of building up strength for athletes are quite obvious. No matter the sport, and no matter whether on a professional or beginner’s level, strength is the ultimate goal. In some, it is strength in the upper body, as with weightlifters, while in others it is strength in the legs, such as with long distance runners.
- Flexibility – being flexible is no longer just for gymnasts and those who practice yoga. It is absolutely vital to have a good range of flexibility in just about type of sport from baseball to dancing. Flexibility is not just about being able to twist yourself into the shape of a pretzel. It is about increasing your range of motion to increase performance, and a good physical therapy session, followed by specific exercises can really help with that.
- Coordination – if you play any type of sport that requires you to do more than one thing at a time, you need to work on coordination. People often don’t think too much about coordination, because as humans, we have it naturally. But what happens if you struggle to run and catch a ball at the same time? This is where physical therapy comes in.
- Stamina – if you’re going to excel in any type of athletics or sport, you need stamina. This refers not just to cardiovascular endurance, but to respiratory endurance too. The buildup of stamina can be a process that takes a long time, but with assistant from a physical therapist, it can be better planned.
How Sports Physical Therapists Do What They Do
For those who have never visited a physical therapist, the idea of doing so may be scary. You may be thinking that they have strange devices and weird oils and will practically put you into traction. This is not true, though there are some parts of physical therapy that may seem a little strange, such as dry needling. The process is actually quite simple.
When you arrive for your first session of sports physical therapy, the therapist will do an assessment to determine the extent of an injury or what you need help with. They will generally look at your patient history to try and determine the source of the problem and will do an evaluation. From this point, they will diagnose the problem. If you come in for example with a pain in your leg, they may need to ask a variety of questions before determining that the problem is an Achilles tendon injury.
From this point, they will prepare a prognosis for treatment. This will determine how many therapy sessions you will need, what exercises you should be doing and how they aim to care for you.
When starting each session, the physical therapist will generally alert you to the problem you are experiencing and how the sessions may help. It is vital to note here that not all injuries can be fixed, and thus the therapist alerts patients to the possibilities of living with their injuries. Pain management is the first and most important part of therapy. If you are in pain, you are less likely to want to participate in sport, and thus the therapist needs to help you manage the pain.
There are various treatments within the physical therapy session that a therapist may use to help patients and these include:
- Cold and heat – there is no doubt that cold and heat treatment benefits those patients who have injuries. Though this is a form of treatment that patients can engage in at home, having a professional to monitor it and administer the process correctly can make a big difference.
- Massage – due to the buildup of lactic acid during exercise, it can sometimes seem as if there is an injury when the muscles are actually stiff. The sports physical therapist is responsible for dealing with this through therapeutic massage. They aim to rub the muscles and release the buildup of lactic acid, thus freeing the muscles and alleviating the feeling of stiffness. This helps those who have lost a certain range of motion due to stiffness.
- Taping – in some cases, especially in the case of injury, it is not possible to help just with heat, cold and massage. This is when the therapist may advise taping the area to assist the muscles in recovering. The tape is a specialized sports tape that is administered in a specific way, based on the therapists training. The aim of the tape is to give the injured area a chance to rest.
- Dry needling – similar to acupuncture, this process involves using sterilized needles inserted into the muscles to stimulate the nerves and encourage healing. The difference here is that while acupuncture only requires the needle to be inserted into the first layer of muscle, dry needling sees the needle inserted deep into the muscle. This can cause some pain, but the simulation of nerves does help in creating more blood flow to the area and assisting in healing.
Part of the therapy that a sports physical therapist offers is exercises that the injured person can use at home to strengthen their injured muscles. These include strengthening and stretching exercises, both of which are important to improve mobility and help the injured person recover.
When to go see a sports physical therapist
By the time some people get to the sports physical therapist, a lot of damage has been done. This is why it is so important to know when to ignore a nagging pain, and when to go straight to therapy. Generally, a good rule of thumb for non-professional athletes to work with is that if a certain pain perseveres through three or more exercise sessions, it is time to go for physical therapy.
It is also important to determine whether the pain is in the muscle, the nerve and what kind of pain you are experiencing. If the pain is in the nerve, the type of pain is almost electrical in nature and can be extremely severe. This is the point where you should go a physical therapist immediately, or to a doctor, as there may be nerve damage.
A muscular pain is usually categorized in one of two ways. It is usually either a burning pain or a sharp pain. A sharp pain means there is some kind of muscle damage or the muscle is on the verge of damage. A sports physical therapist can assist here by providing the patient with exercises and therapy to combat the problem. A burning pain could be because the muscle is strained, or because of lactic acid buildup, both of which are highly treatable by the therapist.
Some of the most common injuries that people experience especially non-professionals include:
- Runners – Achilles tendon injuries are very common to runners, though they may experience other problems in the legs, such as hamstring sprains, lactic acid buildup in the quadriceps and calves and one of the most common, problems in the knees.
- Baseball, golf, softball – since a lot of the work is performed with the arms in this sport, the most common injuries include problems with the shoulders, sprains in the forearms and problems at the elbows.
- Dancing and gymnastics – because of the total body involvement in sports such as these, problems can encompass any body part from the neck to the ankles. This is very specific to these kinds of sports.
On a professional level, a sports physical therapist assists professional athletes while they are participating in certain sports. A therapist assisting a football for example, will help by massaging and preventing injuries during the game. Someone who has been recruited on an Olympic level has the responsibility of dealing with injuries that could put these athletes out of the game. This is why it is so vital that they have the correct information, the right tools and the right training.
Becoming A Sports Physical Therapist
If this career is one that you want to pursue, there are a few things you need to know about it. Firstly, the process of becoming a sports physical therapist implies that you need to know about human anatomy. This is vital since without this information, you will not know what to treat. Sports physical therapists generally study for three to four years, and then need to complete a year of internship at a community center or hospital. This assists them in preparing for whatever challenges their jobs may throw at them.
They will also need to have knowledge of all of the processes and procedures so commonly used in physical therapy, such as taping and dry needling, and when to use what type of therapy. A good physical therapist can assist a patient in identifying the problem, and then prescribe exercises and other forms of therapy to speed up recovery.
In essence, a physical therapist has a very specific type of job to do. This is not a job that is easy and definitely does not involve just rubbing sore muscles. A good physical therapist can make a very big difference to the life of an athlete and can ensure that they recover from an injury quickly enough that that injury does not affect their career. The work that they do can take them to strange locations, or they may practice from a base in a particular city. With either, they will see many types of patients, all with different injuries, and the knowledge of how to treat these injuries correctly is the biggest difference between an average sports physical therapist and a really good one.