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The Difference Between a Physical Therapist & Sports Rehabilitation

By Lisa Mercer

Injuries require a three-step process, which includes pain relief and inflammation reduction, treatment, and rehabilitation. An athlete must take the rehabilitation process one step further. Sports rehabilitation involves the restoration of function and advanced athletic skills. A physical therapist performs the initial rehabilitation process. A sports rehabilitation specialist helps you regain your athletic skills.

Intitial Therapeutic Goals

Both athletes and nonathletes go through the same treatment during the earliest stages of physical therapy. If you still have joint inflammation, your therapist applies cold treatments before she starts your session. She might use heat, if you have pain without inflammation. Your physical therapist's goals at this point of the rehabilitation process include regaining range of motion and regaining basic strength. At this point of therapy, your ability to walk without crutches or lift everyday objects takes precedence over redeveloping athletic skills.

Early Therapeutic Exercises

During the early stages of physical therapy, your therapist uses manual and body weight resistance and assistance to help you regain your range of motion and basic strength. Patients who have undergone anterior cruciate ligament surgery, for example, have postsurgery range-of-motion limitations. To regain leg extension, your therapist may have you sit upright with your legs extended and press the back of your knee into the therapy table. For flexion, he may ask you to roll onto your stomach, so that he can manually attempt to bend your knee. Upper body injuries often involve manual rotation by the therapist or walking your hand up a wall.

Sports Rehabilitation

Different types of patients may receive different types of treatment for the same injury. The woman who tears her ACL by slipping on the ice may practice balance exercise by standing on one leg while the therapist has her catch a medicine ball. A professional skier who tears his ACL might need to stand on a balance board while he performs this exercise. He might also perform plyometric jumping exercises, to prepare him for mogul skiing.

Justifying Different Treatments

Your physical therapist helps you regain the skills necessary for basic daily activities, whereas a sports rehabilitation specialist helps you regain skills necessary for recreation and athletic competition. The rehabilitation specialist assumes that an athlete had an advanced level of fitness before she was injured. Plyometric exercise, for example, plays a key role in many sports conditioning programs, but it is less common in basic fitness routines. The specialist would thus feel comfortable prescribing plyometric rehabilitation workouts to an athlete but may have reservations prescribing them to a previously unfit person.

Finding Sports Rehabilitation Specialists

Some, but not all physical therapists provide sports rehabilitation. If the clinic has the words "sports medicine" in its title, there's a good chance that at least some of the staff members have the qualifications necessary for athletic rehabilitation. However, many insurance plans do not provide coverage for the amount of sessions necessary for regaining your athletic skills. Fortunately, some advanced personal trainers have a special postrehab certification, which qualifies them to to continue your program where your physical therapist left off. If you belong to a school or amateur athletic team, you might have access to an athletic trainer. While they have less medical training than physical therapists, they have special skills such as athletic taping, which stabilizes a sprained limb, and therapeutic exercise.

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