As we explained in our last post, there are several steps you can take and training habits you can change that will reduce your odds for suffering an injury in your sport. But even if an athlete closely follows all these steps and takes every preventive measure imaginable, injuries can still happen. Sports are simply too unpredictable, and there are countless variables out of each athlete’s control that may contribute to an injury.
If an injury does occur, the smartest and safest decision you can make is to see a physical therapist right away. Physical therapists are movement experts with a thorough understanding of the biomechanics involved in all sports. With this knowledge, physical therapists can help athletes prepare for the demands of their respective sport to prevent injury, and in the event of an injury, can guide patients through a comprehensive rehabilitation program. All programs are personalized to the unique demands of each patient’s sport, as well as their physical abilities, goals, and tolerance to various interventions.
To provide you with a better idea of how physical therapists treat sports–related injury, we’ve answered some of the most frequently asked questions that we get at our practice.
Q: What should I expect from my first session with a physical therapist?
A: During the first session, your physical therapist will perform a thorough interview and physical examination to identify the source of your pain and establish a diagnosis. Next, he or she will assess your strength, flexibility, agility, and endurance to develop a better sense of your current fitness level. Part of this process will also involve you answering specific questions about the sport you participate in, your level of involvement, and your goals from physical therapy. Based on the information gathered, your therapist will design an individualized treatment program intended to target your limitations, reduce your pain levels, and improve your physical function.
Q: Will I need to have additional tests done, like an MRI?
A: Diagnostic tests like MRIs and CT scans are vital tools that can help medical professionals reach or confirm a diagnosis, but they are not always needed. Most mild–to–moderate sports injuries—and even some severe injuries—can be diagnosed through a thorough physical examination alone. Therefore, physical therapists try to only order diagnostic tests when it is deemed to be necessary. This usually means that the injury is severe and/or the diagnosis is uncertain after the initial examination. Instead, therapists aim to start patients on a treatment program right away.
Q: What types of treatments will I be doing during therapy?
A: Since treatment plans are personalized for each patient, the specific components will vary from one person to the next, but there are certain interventions that physical therapists frequently use in rehabilitation programs for athletes in every sport. These include the following:
- Strengthening exercises: a fundamental component of every program is to help you regain the strength that you’ve lost and reinforce the structures around the damage to prevent future injuries
- Stretching exercises: impaired flexibility is one of the major factors that leads to injury, so it’s essential to gradually improve your range of motion through targeted exercises
- Manual therapy: this therapeutic approach involves the therapist performing various manipulations and mobilizations of injured joints and muscles to alleviate pain and increase flexibility
- Pain–relieving modalities: ice, heat, electrical stimulation, and ultrasound are often used, as they can often reduce pain levels immediately
- Sport–specific training: many of the exercises you perform will be based on the specific movements and motions involved in your sport
Q: Will physical therapy hurt?
A: Physical therapy usually focuses on healing damaged tissues. Therefore, depending on the stage of your recovery, some pain may be involved, especially if tightened tissues are stretched or weak muscles are strengthened. But physical therapists work closely to ensure your pain from treatment is never more than you can handle. During your first visit, a physical therapist will aim to get an idea what causes pain and how much is too much. Throughout the entire treatment process, your physical therapist will also ask if your pain is sharp or throbbing, if it occurs at the end of a motion or if it continues after the exercise. These are signs that something else may be wrong and that a change is needed. At every step of the way, your physical therapist will monitor your pain and adjust the treatment program whenever necessary.
Q: How will I know when I can safely return to my sport?
A: Physical therapists pride take every measure to ensure that no athlete returns to the field or court until they have completed their rehabilitation and can do so with a minimal risk for injury. This is accomplished by structuring the timeline of programs based on the average time needed to recover, closely evaluating athlete’s progress along the way, and then assessing the athlete towards to end to ensure they fulfill a return–to–play protocol. Only then will therapists provide the go–ahead that you can safely return to your sport.
In our next post, we’ll take a closer look at how physical therapists treat some common sports–related injuries.