Sports Physical Therapist: Career Overview

Board certified sports DPT performing acromioclavicular shear test on older male athlete.

When an athlete becomes injured, he or she may require a period of rehabilitation before competing again. After a general sports medicine physician or orthopod diagnoses the injury, physical therapy may be prescribed depending on its severity.

The objective is for the athlete to recover as quickly and safely as possible with the best outcome. Sports physical therapists specialize in applying the proper exercises and therapeutic modalities to achieve this goal.

Education

A post-graduate Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree is first required and qualifies the graduate to practice as a general Physical Therapist. DPT programs usually take 3 years to complete with some providing a specialization track in sports medicine. It’s not uncommon for students interested in sports physical therapy to earn their bachelor’s degree in exercise science or athletic training or master’s in exercise physiology prior to enrolling in a DPT graduate program.

Certification

Offered as a voluntary certification, entitled ‘Sports’, by the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS), physical therapists must meet certain criteria to become certified in this area of specialization.

ABPTS Sports Specialist Certification

The following are requirements to be eligible for board-certification in the Sports subfield:

Current licensure to practice in your state as a physical therapist

AND

Certification in CPR through American Red Cross’ CPR for the Professional Rescuer course OR American Heart Association’s Basic Life Support (BLS) program

AND

Certification/Licensure as a Paramedic, Emergency Medical Technician (EMT), or Emergency Medical Responder (Red Cross) OR a National Athletic Trainers Association (NATA) board certified athletic trainer

AND

At least 2,000 hours of direct patient care in sports medicine setting OR completion of an APTA-accredited clinical residency in sports physical therapy

Other Certifications

PTs that are ABPTS board-certified sports specialists sometimes hold certifications from fitness-related organizations. For example, they may be an American Council on Exercise (ACE) certified Therapeutic Exercise Specialist or National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) certified Corrective Exercise Specialist. Additional certifications help in complementing their applied knowledge of optimal recovery solutions for injured athletes.

Job Requirements

The job duties of a sports PT can be very similar to that of a general PT. The following is an overview of how a sports PT would treat an athlete patient.

Patient Evaluation

Once physical therapy is prescribed for an athlete, the physical therapist performs an evaluation to determine what limitations are present. The first part of the evaluation will consist of a subjective portion: the athlete will describe the nature of the injury- how it happened and what part of the body was injured- and what physical problems he or she is having. This opportunity is also used to find out what medications the athlete is taking, either prescribed or over the counter, what his or her psychological state is and past medical history. The second component of the evaluation consists of objective findings gathered by using manual techniques and measuring devices. Two instruments used during this portion of the evaluation include a goniometer to measure joint angles and a tape measure, to determine degree of swelling or muscle loss associated with injury.

Collectively, deficits or problems may be found in the following:

  • Range of motion
  • Strength
  • Balance
  • Proprioception, or awareness of posture, movement, and change in the equilibrium of the body
  • Neuromuscular coordination
  • Swelling

Plan Assessment

After the objective data is collected, the physical therapist will determine what goals need to be set to return the athlete to a competitive condition. This is known as the assessment portion of the evaluation. Short-term goals are set for a few days or weeks. For the athlete to return to competition, long-term goals are also set and these will ultimately need to be achieved for an athlete’s successful recovery.

A simple way to remember the process of the evaluation is by using the acronym SOAP:

S: Subjective – Gather subjective data from the athlete.
O: Objective – Gather objective or measurable data.
A: Assessment – Set short- and long-term goals as well as identifying deficits.
P: Plan – Determine the course of action to reach the goals.

Therapy Administration

Finally, the sports physical therapist devises a plan of therapeutic treatments and exercises to use to reach the short- and long-term goals in the shortest and most safe amount of time.

Depending on the severity of the injury, therapy may be scheduled daily for severe injuries or only one to two times a week for minor sprains and strains. Generally, the physical therapist treats the athlete’s deficit through different stages of therapy.

4 Primary Job Duties of a Sports Physical Therapist

1. Decrease the pain level, using manual techniques like massaging or modalities such as electrical stimulation, heat, or cold.

2. Improve the range of motion in an affected limb or area with manual techniques such as massage; passive or assisted exercise; and with modalities such as ultrasound, hydrotherapy or a combination of several of these.

3. Increase strength to a functional level by using weight machines, free weights, the athlete’s body weight, and static resistance.

4. Improve agility, quickness, reaction time, speed, proprioception, and eventually sport-specific performance in preparation for returning to practice and competition.

Why Sports PTs are Necessary

It’s important that an athlete is trained in a manner that simulates his or her sport towards the end of therapy. For example, a football player with a torn ACL requires a much different recovery plan compared to a baseball player with a torn rotator cuff.

Applied knowledge of sport-specific rehabilitation and exercises enables sports PTs to help their clients achieve a level of physical ability that will allow both a safe and optimal return to competition.


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