What to Expect in Sports Medicine Physical Therapy

Whether you are a professional athlete or a weekend warrior, sports medicine physical therapy (PT) may be appropriate for you. This type of PT can not only assist you in recovering from an injury, it can actually help prevent one from developing in the first place.

Many sports medicine physical therapists have a background in athletic training, and some may be board-certified sports clinical specialists (SCS) through the American Physical Therapy Association. Because of this, these PTs are uniquely qualified to treat a wide array of sports-related diagnoses and to meet the sport-specific needs of an athlete.

If you have sustained a common injury like a sprain or strain, are trying to return to sports after surgery, or are just looking to stay at the top of your game, learn more about what this type of physical therapy entails in the sections below. 

Female physical therapist assisting man with leg exercise

 Andersen Ross / Getty Images

Most Common Sports Injuries

There are many different types of sports injuries. That said, some of the most commonly treated concerns include:

  • Ligament sprains
  • Muscle strains
  • Bursitis
  • Arthritis aggravations
  • Concussions

Assessment

Your time with a sports medicine physical therapist typically begins with a comprehensive evaluation. Here is what to expect during this assessment:

  • Your PT will ask for specifics about your injury or condition, any pain you are experiencing, and any limitations you have at home or while playing sports. They will also discuss your prior performance levels and any goals you have for therapy.
  • A thorough examination is usually performed. In this phase, the therapist typically assesses your range of motion, your strength, and (if able) your overall mechanics while performing sports-specific movements like running, jumping, or cutting.
  • A cluster of special tests may also be performed to help the PT home in on an accurate diagnosis.

Using the info they gather during the evaluation, your PT will determine which areas you need to address in therapy in order to return to your chosen sport or exercise. If you are more interested in injury prevention, this evaluation can also identify any potentially harmful underlying factors and help guide your therapy sessions moving forward. 

Sports Medicine Physical Therapy

Frequently, sports medicine physical therapy is broken down into three specific phases:

  • Phase one: This is the most important after an injury and centers around reducing any pain, inflammation, or swelling that is present. During this time, soft tissue massage and icing may be beneficial. Modalities that provide compression and help to decrease your pain may also be utilized. In addition, gentle stretching and mobility techniques focused on restoring your range of motion and light muscle activation exercises are also frequently performed.
  • Phase two: This next portion of rehab is typically centered on building strength and improving your overall balance. Individuals who are looking to prevent an injury rather than treat one may actually start in this phase. Depending on your specific diagnosis, your therapist will teach you how to progressively load the affected area with strength-training exercises. They can also customize an exercise program that provides support to the injured region. In addition, proprioceptive training is typically initiated in an effort to improve your balance and stability in anticipation of your return to higher-level sporting activities.
  • Phase three: In the final phase of rehabilitation, sport-specific drills and exercises are introduced. During this stage, your therapist will typically pay close attention to your mechanics while you replicate some of the movements needed in your specific sport. They can also help you improve your overall endurance and may create a customized return-to-sport schedule based on your individual circumstances. At the very end of PT, you are typically cleared to return to your desired activity and given a home exercise program to continue on with.

Sports Medicine Exercises and Equipment

Exercises are a key component of most sports medicine physical therapy treatments. While the focus and type of exercise can vary depending on your condition and goals, several common varieties are usually utilized. They include:

  • Stretches and self-mobilization techniques are used to improve range of motion and gain flexibility.
  • Strengthening exercises are commonly prescribed to help build muscle strength and to support an injured area.
  • Balance or proprioceptive training is typically included to help increase your overall stability and to prep you for higher-level sports movements.

Many PT clinics have a wide variety of equipment that can assist with the exercises described above. Equipment may include:

  • Elastic resistance bands
  • Weights
  • Wobble boards
  • Foam pads
  • Balance discs

To add to this, in some cases, higher-level tools like video motion analysis or isokinetic testing (a machine that formally measures your muscle strength) may also be used to get more objective data on any deficits that your therapist detects.

In order to make your home program as convenient as possible, however, in many cases minimal (if any) equipment is needed.

Sports Injury Prevention

While sports medicine physical therapy is most commonly needed after an injury or surgery, it can actually be used to help prevent an injury from occurring in the first place.

To accomplish this, a therapist will typically assess an athlete for any weakness or flexibility deficits in their supporting musculature that may potentially lead to an injury down the road. A comprehensive screen of your movement patterns is also frequently performed to check for any faulty mechanics while running, cutting, jumping, or throwing.

Following this examination, a customized plan can be implemented to address any issues that are found along the way. Injury prevention programs have been found to be effective in reducing lower-body injuries, like an ACL tear, in athletes. In addition, strengthening and stretching programs have also been shown to decrease the risk of shoulder and elbow disorders in throwing athletes.

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s the difference between sports medicine and physical therapy?

Sports medicine is a blanket term that refers to any medical intervention that treats or prevents athletic-related injuries or conditions. This field of medicine can include many different options, including surgeries, injections, prescription medications, bracing, psychology, and physical therapy.

Why should you do sports medicine physical therapy?

If you are an athlete or an active individual who is looking to treat or prevent a sports-related condition, this type of PT may be appropriate. Sports medicine physical therapy focuses on addressing any deficits that are keeping you from performing at your highest level and on creating an individualized exercise plan that meets the demands of your sport.  

How do you prevent sports injuries?

Working with an experienced sports medicine therapist can help you identify areas of muscular weakness or tightness that may lead to a future injury. In addition, by homing in on faulty movement patterns and working with a PT to improve your mechanics, certain types of athletic-related conditions may also be avoided.  

Was this page helpful?
5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Physical Therapy Association. Become a board certified sports clinical specialist.

  2. Children’s Wisconsin. Sports medicine physical therapy.

  3. Taylor JB, Waxman JP, Richter SJ, Shultz SJ. Evaluation of the effectiveness of anterior cruciate ligament injury prevention programme training components: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med. 2015;49(2):79-87. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2013-092358

  4. Matsel KA, Butler RJ, Malone TR, Hoch MC, Westgate PM, Uhl TL. Current concepts in arm care exercise programs and injury risk reduction in adolescent baseball players: a clinical review. Sports Health. 2021;13(3):245-250. doi: 10.1177/1941738120976384

  5. Duke Health. Sports medicine.