Physical Therapy AssessmentsAn athlete can end up in physical therapy for a variety of reasons, with or without a referral from another specialist. During the first appointment, the physical therapist will perform an assessment to identify physical limitations, weakness, limited range of motion, and other biomechanical issues that compromise optimal functioning.
Physical Therapy TreatmentsPhysical therapists use a variety of different modalities to restore proper physical functioning. Some of the most common rehab protocols include:
- Stretching Exercises
- Strengthening Exercises
- Cold and Heat Therapy
- Electrical Stimulation
- Massage Therapy
There are countless stretching and flexibility exercises a physical therapist will use in order to help an athlete gain appropriate mobility and range of motion. In many cases, the PT will recommend whole body stretches rather than isolating a specific body part. This is because many injuries affect more than the area injured. Often, when one tissue is compromised, other areas of the body compensate, and the injury can change the alignment all the way from the head to the feet. A skilled therapist will prescribe specific stretching exercises to help return the entire body to proper alignment.
Just as with stretching exercises, a PT will often prescribe whole body strengthening exercises to help an injured athlete recover fully. In many sports injuries, the cause is multi-faceted, and a skilled therapist will stretch tight tissues and strengthen weak muscles in a way to develop proper biomechanics throughout the body. While many rehab exercises focus on the injured area, if an athlete has imbalances due to overuse (or underuse) from the repetitive motion performed during a specific sport, a PT may prescribe cross training exercises to help balance the muscle groups.
Heat therapy is used to relax tight muscles, reduce muscle tension and pain, and increase blood flow and circulation to help heal a chronic injury. Cold therapy is often used to help reduce inflammation, swelling and pain from acute injuries.
Ultrasound treatments for injuries utilize either high or low frequency sound waves to stimulate the soft tissues and provide deep tissue warming. The effect of ultrasound vibration is increased vasodilatation (widening of blood vessels), increased blood flow, and increased temperature. This often results is improved healing and relaxation of the tissues and helps treat muscle tightness and spasm.
Electrical stimulation, also called E-stim, is a common physical therapy treatment that helps tissues heal. During E-stim, several small electrodes are placed on the skin in order to deliver an electrical current to a specific muscle or group of muscles to cause a contraction. The forced contraction helps the muscles strengthen and increases blood flow to the area to help in healing the injured tissues.
Massage therapy provides a hands-on manipulation of the soft tissues of the body in order to help heal injured soft tissues by increasing circulation, breaking down or preventing scar tissue adhesions, reducing pain and muscle tension, and reducing overall stress.
Find a Physical TherapistIf you are an athlete and your injury is related to sports, it's a good idea to seek out a physical therapist who specializes in working with athletes in your sport. Ask for referrals and recommendations from your coach, teammates or other local athletes. You can also look for local sports medicine clinics with physical therapists on staff.
In the past, a PT needed to have a 4-year degree, but now most have a master’s or doctorate degree in physical therapy. Graduates from these programs must also pass national and state licensing exams in order to practice. They are also required to take continuing education classes each year to maintain their licenses.
To find a physical therapist, refer to the American Physical Therapy Association PT Finder.