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Physical Therapists and Athletic Trainers Team Up for Amazing Results

by Dave Heidloff11 Comments

When an athlete is injured, a doctor will often prescribe a round of physical therapy to help facilitate the healing process. As an athletic trainer (AT), I’m often asked by parents why a student-athlete can’t just do their therapy with me in the athletic training room instead of going off-site to a clinic for formal physical therapy. The truth is that as an athletic trainer, I’m a part of a healthcare team, and like any other team, I feel that each member plays a role that maximizes their potential. Personally, and dependant on the nature of the injury, if I want my athlete to get the highest quality of care, I’m going to set them up with formal physical therapy with a physical therapist (PT).

So why do I refer to PT? As an outreach athletic trainer at a high school, there is a very small window of time after school before a practice or game begins (usually about 30 to 40 minutes, nicknamed “the rush”) that allow an AT to adequately oversee a student-athlete’s formal rehabilitation. During this time, ATs are multitasking between pre-activity treatments, taping, and evaluations.  In addition to time constraints, resources are somewhat limited at the high school and often require oversight in a different location in the school, such as a cardio lab or weight room. After the “rush,” ATs are going out to practice and/or events that may interfere with the quality of care that a surgical case, for example, may require.  Most athletic trainers are constantly multitasking between treatments, taping, performing evaluations, coordinating athletes’ health care, working on the sidelines, and other tasks to provide that level of dedicated service.

PTs are dedicated to providing the best possible rehabilitation to their patients and often dedicate their time to one-on-one care.  As stated earlier, a physical therapist will be solely dedicated to working with you throughout your therapy sessions, which are tailored to each patient’s needs after a thorough musculoskeletal evaluation. This type of individualized one-on-one care is paramount to maximizing your time spent while going through your rehabilitation. One bonus that some athletes may not realize is that many physical therapists have specialties that can be of specific benefit to an athlete. Also, within a physical therapy clinic you’ll find specialized equipment for exercise and healing, as well as other healthcare specialists, all which serve as resources that are unique to the physical therapy clinic setting. These resources and the ability to provide individualized attention make PTs an irreplaceable part of the rehabilitation process.

As mentioned, the athletic trainer is not out of the picture once formal physical therapy has started. Many PTs will take advantage of their relationship with an AT to help co-create a treatment plan that addresses each individual athlete’s specific needs. Also, formal physical therapy sessions are often supplemented by exercise sessions on the athletic field or in the gymnasium.  Moreover, athletic trainers excel in late-stage rehabilitation, also called ‘Return to Sport Conditioning’, making them an important asset for transitioning athletes back into competition safely. Finally, ATs serve as a guide to help athletes modify their practices, which allows them to safely participate in their sport as soon as possible.

As you can see, each profession serves as a resource for the other and combining their skills creates the best possible scenario for the athlete they’re working with. By letting each profession fulfill the roles they excel in, athletes are given the highest quality of care and will achieve the best outcome possible.

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11 Comments

  1. Grant Koster

    As a dual credentialed Physical Therapist (PT) and Athletic Trainer (AT), I know the value and limitations of both professions in certain cicumstances. The PT and the AT are critical partners on the rehabilitation team of the injured athlete along with the athlete’s parents (if a minor) as well as the team physician and coaches. There are certain parts of an athlete’s rehabilitation that can be done synergistically by both the clinical PT and the high school AT. An example of this is someone who has health insurance limitations or needs to be at practice for the mental conditioning of his/her sport and can only attend formal outpatient PT 1-2 times a week. Ideally, it is good to support the athlete in a healthy balance of keeping connected with the team and his/her teammates and getting some isolated time with a Physical Therapist in a healing environment such as the outpatient clinic setting. They will be with other athletes that are working hard to recover from an injury and get back healthy to their sport.

  2. Dave Heidloff

    @Grant – I couldn’t agree more. I’ve seen firsthand the difference between athletes that take advantage of both services available to them and those that choose not to. The outcomes of those that take advantage of both are always substantially better and makes the transition back into sports a lot smoother. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Sam Foer

    You guys seem like professionals in the PT/AT fields. I am a junior in high school and have a dream of going to graduate school right out of high school to take the dual PT/AT program at Springfield College. I have a few questions for you guys so that I can learn about the field I hope to be going into;
    If you graduated from a dual degree PT/AT program, can you use both of those majors together? For an example, treating a patient with a sports injury and practicing both AT and PT on them so that they don’t have to go to another place for AT because you only helped them with the PT aspect of their injury?
    If this is so, what is the salary range for the combined practice?
    Do you see the combined practitioners on sports teams?
    Is the combined practice just called a Sports Trainer?
    Thanks for your help!

  4. Dave Heidloff

    @Sam – Good questions here. I’ll do my best to help you out. There are many physical therapists that are dual credentialed in both physical therapy and athletic training that get to utilize their unique experience in the clinic. Typically, if a patient is going to formal physical therapy, they wouldn’t go to a separate location for athletic training sessions. Some people may work with a personal trainer on the side, but this is a different (and often mistaken) field from athletic training. What we do in the athletic training room with athletes is closer to the PT side of things most times, often supplementing what is done in the PT clinic.

    If you are more interested in the strength training side of things, a credential like a Performance Enhancement Specialist or Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist may be worth exploring. Many PTs and ATs have these credentials to aid in late stage rehabilitation and transitioning back into competitive sports.

    Salary ranges for combined PT/ATC credentials vary a lot based on a lot of factors – experience, location, other specialties, etc, so unfortunately, I can’t give you any specifics here.

    Some professional teams have dual credentialed PT/ATC staff members.

    The dual credentialed professional does not currently have a unique title.

    I hope that helps, Sam. Feel free to comment with any other questions that come up.

  5. Jordyne Couts

    I am going to be attending Kent State University in the fall to begin my Athletic Training major. I wanted to do 6 years of schooling for Athletic Training (4 years undergraduate, 2 years graduate). I want to work in the collegiate level. I also want to do the dual credential with physical therapy. Do you recommend I take the 6 years of athletic training and then do the 3 years of physical therapy to get the dual credential degree. Or would you recommend that I only do 4 years of Athletic Training then go to graduate school for physical therapy?

  6. Victor Liberi

    Dave and Jordyne,

    The quick answer to your question is absolutely YES! Dual credentials in AT and PT will provide you a wealth of opportunities and earning potential. However, my advice as a teacher of both ATs and PTs is one degree at a time and over achieve with each academic step you take. Athletic Training is a great place to start as this major prepares students for all allied health professions. Realistically, the majority of student who aspire to become physical therapists don’t graduate with the 3.7 GPA necessary to get admitted to such competitive DPT programs. With a degree and certification in athletic training as apposed to biology or pre-pt, you will be professionally prepared to enter the workforce and very employable. Even in today’s economy, healthcare providers are finding jobs! You made a great first step in reaching out through this blog. It is never too early to network!

  7. yehudith gold

    a question: can a physical therapist work on the field instead of an athletic trainer? and if so’ why do we need the profession of AT if PT can do it?

  8. James Leavitt

    To Yehudith Gold,
    A PT cannot provide on-field coverage unless they are dually credentialed as an ATC and PT. ATC’s are trained as first responders and are experienced in Triage and Emergency response such as taping and splinting. This is something that PT’s are not formally trained in. Athletic trainers are experts in sports medicine, emergency response, and triage. Physical therapist are experts in muscular skeletal disorders, neurological disorders, ergonomics, and rehabilitation. Athletic Training services are only for Athletic Trainer to practice, just as Physical Therapy services are for PT’s and PTA’s to practice. While there may be some overlapping of services, they are distinctively different. Both are rewarding jobs and are assets in the field health care.

  9. Paul

    To the comment above, is it in the state practice act or the APTA Practice Guide were to find that PT’s cannot provide on-field coverage? I know you are correct, and am trying to find the reference. Thanks for any help.

  10. Kalil Tactuk

    What would be the difference between doing AT -> DPT and AT-> MSAT -> DPT?
    I’m close to joining an accredited Athletic Training undergraduate, and my goal is to be the AT/PT of an professional soccer team. I really want to know what would be the right choice for that!
    Thank you

  11. Will

    I don’t know if this link is too old to be answered but I’m a junior in high school wishing to get a dual degree in athletic training and physical therapy. There are a few schools that offer the dual degree but would it be worth also looking at colleges with both programs but that don’t necessarily go together? I’m unsure of what the exact benefits of the dual degree are vs just getting your dpt and AT as a bachelors. Any knowledge would be greatly appreciated as well as school recommendations!

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