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.