The Benefits of Physical Therapy for Athletes

Physical therapy can also help athletes maintain their health and well-being both on and off the field. In this blog post, we will discuss the awesome benefits of physical therapy for athletes!

Why You Need Physical Therapy as an Athlete

If you are an athlete, you know that staying in top physical shape is crucial to your success. Physical therapy can help you achieve this in so many ways. Let’s review some of the top benefits of physical therapy for athletes.

In general, you can expect the following:

  • Improving your range of motion
  • Strengthening your muscles
  • Reducing inflammation
  • Improving your flexibility
  • Optimizing muscular balance
  • Reduce the risk of injury, particularly from overuse
  • Enhance muscular endurance and power
  • Improved overall performance
  • Confidence in your body’s performance capabilities
  • Enhance all aspects of your health holistically to further boost your performance (such as sleep, habits, diet, stress management, etc.)
  • And beyond!

Who Can Benefit from Physical Therapy

By reviewing the benefits above, it should be pretty clear that pretty much anyone can benefit from participating in physical therapy. 

Athletes of all levels can benefit from the services of a physical therapist. Physical therapy can help you whether you are just starting in your sport or if you are a seasoned professional. It is never too late to start reaping the benefits of physical therapy!

Now let’s review some more specific benefits below.

#1 Work with a Movement Expert

First and foremost, physical therapists are movement experts. They understand how the body moves and how to help people move better. This is especially beneficial for athletes, who often need help recovering from injuries or improving their performance. Physical therapists can create customized treatment plans that address an athlete’s specific needs.

They can analyze the mechanics of your specific sport and ensure that you are using the proper form to avoid injuries. They can also help you improve your movement patterns so that you can move more efficiently and effectively. This can lead to improved performance on the field, court, or track!

#2 Feel Empowered to Push Your Body to Its Limits

Physical therapists have a hidden superpower that doesn’t involve the use of their hands- as is commonly perceived (no- physical therapy and massage are not synonymous). And it involves tons of education.

A physical therapist will provide you with extensive education that helps you make informed decisions. This equates to a sustainable recovery because you feel empowered to manage any pain or injuries that come your way.

#3 Get Long-Term Results for Your Injury Recovery

One of the most obvious benefits is that physical therapy can help athletes recover from injuries. Physical therapists use a variety of techniques to help reduce pain, swelling, and inflammation. They also work with athletes to restore range of motion and improve flexibility. Physical therapy can help athletes return to their sport faster and with less risk of re-injury.

#4 Effectively Manage Pain

Athletes tend to gravitate toward the old school saying “no pain, no gain.” However,  this mentality can lead to serious injuries. Acutely, pain is typically a signal from the body that something is amiss and needs to be adjusted. Chronically, pain is often the result of an injury that has not healed properly or has more complicated factors involved, such as mental health.

Physical therapists are pain management experts. They can help you find ways to effectively manage your pain so that you can stay active and healthy. Physical therapy can also help you avoid relying on pain medication, which can have harmful side effects.

Whether you are dealing with acute or chronic pain  Physical therapists can help athletes effectively manage pain so that they can train harder (and smarter) and perform at their best.

#5 Injury Prevention

What’s the best way to treat an injury? Prevent it in the first place. While it’s not always possible, there are ways to reduce the risk of injury. Physical therapists can help athletes prevent future injuries by identifying and correcting muscle imbalances. They can also design specific training programs that target an athlete’s weaknesses. This can help reduce the risk of overuse injuries and improve overall performance.

The cost-effectiveness of seeing a physical therapist as an athlete, from a money and time standpoint, can be immense when it involves injuries. Whether you’re a professional athlete or amateur, being able to stay on the field or track (or any other medium) is typically a high priority to enjoy your sport to the fullest.

#6 Safely Push Your Limits

Athletes often need to be pushed outside their comfort zones to make progress. Physical therapists are excellent at providing this push while still keeping you safe. They will help you gradually increase the intensity and duration of your workouts so that you can make steady progress without getting injured.

You might be thinking, “I can just push myself outside my comfort zone. I don’t need a physical therapist for that.” But here’s the thing- as an athlete, you are more likely to get injured if you try to do too much too soon. Physical therapists can help you avoid this by gradually increasing the intensity of your workouts and monitoring your progress along the way.

#7 Re-learn Optimal Movement Patterns

When pain or an injury is involved, athletes tend to develop poor compensatory movement patterns. These can further complicate the injury and impede recovery.  Physical therapists can help athletes re-learn optimal movement patterns so that they can move more efficiently and with less pain. Physical therapy can also help improve coordination and balance, which can reduce the risk of injury (or re-injury).

#8 Address Your Injury Holistically

These days, many physical therapists take a more holistic approach to treating injuries. This means that they not only treat the injury itself but also look at the factors that may have contributed to it.

For example, if you have Achilles tendonitis, your physical therapist will not only treat the inflammation (a short-term strategy). But they will also assess your training program, shoes, and biomechanics to identify any potential contributing factors.

Additionally, they will look at lifestyle, psychological, and social factors. As human beings, our emotional state and the choices we make each day can have a huge impact on both our perception of pain and the body’s ability to heal. Thus, this extra attentive step can be a game-changer in your recovery.

What to Expect from Sports Physical Therapy

If you’re an athlete (or even if you just exercise regularly), chances are you will experience an injury at some point or have concerns about your performance. And when that happens, it’s important to seek out the best possible care to ensure a quick and full recovery. To get started, here’s what you need to do.

  • Schedule an appointment with a physical therapist (note: in almost every state, you do NOT need a referral- you call or hop online and schedule an appointment directly)
  • At your first appointment, the physical therapist will ask you about your symptoms, recent injuries, medical history, and activity level. They will then perform a thorough examination to assess your range of motion, flexibility, strength, and joint stability.
  • Based on their findings, they will develop a customized treatment plan for a specific amount of time that you both agree upon.
  • Show up for your appointments (in-person or virtually)- ask lots of questions, do the work, and yield some awesome results
  • “Graduate” from physical therapy feeling confident
  • Have your physical therapist on speed dial for any questions, concerns, or additional issues you encounter in the future- having a physical therapist that knows you well is an excellent way to get the best possible care when you need it!

Physical Therapy For Athletes: Treatment Options

There are many different types of physical therapy treatments that can benefit athletes. Here are some of the most common:

  • Manual therapy: This is a hands-on approach that involves the physical therapist mobilizing your muscles and joints to reduce pain and improve mobility. Techniques involve soft tissue massage, myofascial techniques, joint mobility, dry needling, and more.
  • Exercise: Physical therapists will design specific exercises to help you regain strength and improve your range of motion. For example,  if you’re recovering from an ACL tear, your physical therapist will likely prescribe exercises that focus on regaining quadriceps and hamstring strength.
  • Functional training: This will help you relearn how to perform everyday activities, such as walking and climbing stairs, after an injury. Plus, as an athlete, it will involve training for getting back to very sport-specific moves.
  • Modalities: These might include things like heat, cold, ultrasound, or electrical stimulation to reduce pain and inflammation. These are great short-term solutions to pain management that will allow you to tolerate your other treatments more effectively.
  • Education: As discussed in the benefits section, your physical therapist will provide extensive education to help you feel your best- related to healing and mechanics.
  • Use of other tools: Your physical therapist can recommend and utilize other tools as well. These might include the use of kinesiology tape, orthotics, braces, and exercise tools (weights, resistance bands, foam rollers, etc.). 

How Long Should You See a Physical Therapist?

A common question is: how long does it take for physical therapy to work? However, this question is almost impossible to answer since it depends on a lot of variables. In general, you should expect to see your physical therapist for at least a few weeks, if not longer.

How often you see your PT will also depend on your diagnosis, the severity of your symptoms, and how well you’re responding to treatment.

For example, if you’re coming in for treatment of chronic low back pain, you might start coming in two times per week for a few weeks and then gradually taper down to once per week or every other week.

If you’re an athlete recovering from a sports injury, you might start coming in three times per week for several weeks and then taper down to once per week or every other week as you regain your strength and range of motion.

If you had to have surgery,  you might start physical therapy a few days after your procedure and then come in three to five times per week until you’re healed and can do everything on your own at home. Then, it will likely take 12 or more weeks to gradually get back to your sport-specific needs.

How to Choose a Physical Therapist for Optimal Treatment

Now that you know all of the awesome benefits that physical therapy can offer athletes, you might be wondering how to choose a physical therapist. Here are some tips:

  • Ask your friends, family, teammates, and colleagues for physical therapy recommendations
  • Ask your doctor for a referral (if you happen to be seeing them anyways)- only if your insurance requires it! Remember that most do not!
  • Check with your insurance company to see which PTs are in-network
  • If you have a high deductible, minimal PT coverage, no insurance, or questionable co-pays- you might also consider the many benefits of seeing a cash-pay PT clinic (they’re a lot cheaper than you may think in the long run!)
  • Look for someone who has experience working with athletes and is certified in sports physical therapy or orthopedics
  • Check out their reviews online
  • Schedule your first appointment- in person or virtually- to get a feel for the PT and see if they’re a good fit for you

Every Athlete Needs a Physical Therapist in Their Back Pocket

In conclusion,  every athlete needs a physical therapist in their back pocket! Physical therapy can help you recover from injuries, manage pain, and improve your overall performance. Plus, a physical therapist can also provide you with education and guidance to help you prevent injuries in the future.

Don’t wait for a referral, don’t wait until you get injured, or put off treatment until you’re in severe pain to find a PT- start building a relationship with one today so that you can have the best possible care when you need it. If you want to chat in the virtual world (I love virtual physical therapy!) or happen to be in Billings, MT- I am happy to chat with you more too!

I was a collegiate swimmer and love to hike, run, bike, camp, and swim myself- so I know how important injury prevention is for keeping up with the activities I love most. Feel free to reach out to me for questions or even PT recommendations across the US. Thanks for reading!

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JayDee Vykoukal

JayDee is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and ex-collegiate Division 1 athlete. Through her own online platform, Health Means Wealth, she is dedicated to helping her clients live their best lives through the power of healthy habits.

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