What is Sports Physical Therapy and How Therapists Treat Injuries

While there are over ten recognized specialties in physical therapy, the sports physical therapy specialty stands out as one of the most commonly referenced areas of PT.  The idea of being a physical therapist for a major league sports team usually comes to mind when you think of the term ‘sports PT’.  However, a sports PT specialist may practice in your hometown therapy clinic and may never actually work on a sports team. 

In this article, we’ll explain what a sports physical therapist does and highlight the education and training required to become a sports PT.  We’ll also look at the similarities and differences of a sports physical therapist and sports medicine physician. 

What is Sports Physical Therapy?

While a general physical therapist is more than capable of handling any musculoskeletal injury, a sports physical therapist has extensive training and experience in working with acute sports injuries and rehabilitation for injured athletes.  From highschool athletes to collegiate and professional level sports teams, a sports physical therapist often works with a very active population, designing programs that safely progress these athletes to return to playing and working at their highest level possible. 

Physical Therapy Professional

Many outpatient physical therapy clinics focus on sports rehabilitation, partnering with local orthopedic physicians and sports medicine physicians to provide rehab to patients after musculoskeletal injuries, surgery, or for managing non-operative injuries.  Some PT clinics have a primary focus on sports rehabilitation, attracting a younger population of patients who want to return to playing a sport or being active after an injury.

A physical therapist who provides sports rehabilitation may also have further specialization as an ABPTS board certified sports specialist, holding the designation of SCS.  The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialists (ABPTS) was established by the American Physical Therapy Association as the body of oversight for specialty certifications in physical therapy. 

 A physical therapist with the designation “SCS” after their name has completed the highest recognized specialty training among therapists interested in sports therapy.  While the SCS designation is not required to work with patients in a sports therapy clinic, it’s one of the ways physical therapists can stand out among other clinicians to provide excellent care to their patients in this setting.

How To Become a Sports Physical Therapist

If your goal is to achieve the highest designation possible in sports therapy in order to work with high level and even professional athletes, this is the path to get there:

  • Complete 4 Years of Undergraduate Studies
  • Complete a 3 Year Doctor of Physical Therapy Program
  • Enroll in a 1 year Sports Therapy Residency (or complete 2,000 hours in a sports therapy practice)
  • Pass the ABPTS Sports Specialty Certification Exam 
  • Maintain an emergency care certification/training (Athletic Training Certification, licensed EMT, or EMR or first responder).

While having the SCS designation is not a requirement to work with elite level athletes or sports teams, it can help to set you apart from other applicants.  

For aspiring sports therapists, the most common choice for undergraduate studies is athletic training. This also satisfies one of the requirements to maintain an emergency care certification or training license. 

Sports therapists are expected to act quickly in emergency situations on the field and understand all aspects of the recovery process after an injury.  This is why the additional requirement for advanced emergency training is required as a sports therapist.

Additional training in a one year sports therapy residency program after completing PT school can place you on an accelerated path to sit for the SCS exam as well.  This 200 question SCS exam takes approximately 6 hours to complete and is significantly more difficult than the general boards exam required for every physical therapist.  

Sports Physical Therapist vs General Physical Therapist

Work Setting

Not all sports PTs work directly with a sports team or in a sports focused clinic.  A general physical therapist and a sports physical therapist may work in the same outpatient clinic, treating the same type of patients. However, the advanced training of a sports PT who holds the SCS designation may draw in patients who are seeking a specialist who focuses on developing advanced training programs.  

Continuing Education 

Both sports PTs and general PTs are required to complete continuing education each year in order to renew their physical therapy license.  Advanced training courses may be completed in person or online through physical therapy continuing education providers such as MedBridge Education. Additional continuing education may be required in order to maintain the SCS designation, and may be satisfied through the completion of advanced acute injury management certifications through organizations like the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians

Salary Potential 

Sports physical therapists typically earn the same salary as a physical therapist without specialty training. The average physical therapist salary is around $85,000 annually, but a new graduate can expect to earn around $70,000 a year even with the SCS designation.  While this may seem inconsistent due to the specialized training, there typically is not a recognized increase in pay due to the high number of job applicants interested in sports therapy.  Sports therapy jobs are typically some of the most highly sought after jobs in PT, so the high supply of therapists typically results in an average salary compared to other specialty areas. 

What do Sports Physical Therapists Treat?

A sports physical therapist can provide treatment for any type of musculoskeletal injury as well as many other conditions. Here are some of  the most common injuries a sports physical therapist may see in the clinic.

Concussion Management

Sports PTs work closely with patients in evaluating and treating patients who have suffered from a concussion.  Following a thorough evaluation, a PT will design a plan of care to progress a patient through recovery, managing symptoms related to post concussion syndrome or other neurological issues related to an acute injury. 

ACL / Meniscus Repair / Knee Injuries

Some of the most common sports injuries result in surgical repair, especially with traumatic injuries to the knee. A sports physical therapist will guide the treatment for a patient following surgery, progressing the patient through knee exercises to restore range of motion, strength, coordination, and stability. 

Is A Sports Medicine Career Right For You2

Following an injury to the knee, a sports physical therapist will monitor the patient’s recovery and help the patient to gradually return to activities such as running, jumping, and other high impact activities.

Rotator Cuff Repair / Shoulder Injuries

Some of the most common shoulder injuries treated by sports PTs include: labral tears, rotator cuff tears, shoulder impingement, and shoulder instability/dislocation.  Throwing athletes, swimmers, and weightlifters commonly experience injury to the shoulder. While surgery is not always required, sports physical therapy may still be recommended by a physician in order to restore strength and mobility to promote healing and to prevent further injury. 

Tennis Elbow / Golfer’s Elbow / Wrist Injuries

Repetitive stress injuries such as tennis elbow and golfer’s elbow can be very frustrating for a high level athlete.  Even the smallest of injuries to the wrist, hand, or finger can cause an athlete to take time off the field to recover. A sports physical therapist helps patients with these types of injuries by creating treatment plans to restore motion, improve strength, and to maintain conditioning during the recovery process. The PT may recommend specific equipment like a tennis elbow brace to provide support for a chronic injury like lateral epicondylitis (tennis elbow). 

Useful Resources: Broken Wrist Rehab Exercises

Foot and Ankle Injuries

Aside from major trauma such as a fractured ankle or torn ligament, ankle injuries can range from simple sprains to chronic issues like plantar fasciitis. For runners and athletes who rely on their ability to move quickly on the field, a foot or ankle injury can be a devastating event.  Sports physical therapists provide stability training and strengthening exercises to help progress the patient through the healing process so they can return to their sport. 

These are just some of the types of injuries a sports PT can treat.  Regardless of the type of musculoskeletal injury or surgical repair, a sports therapist is trained to understand the proper rehabilitation needs in order to help the patient return to their sport or activity.

How is Sports Medicine Different from Physical Therapy?

As one of the most widely recognized specialties in physical therapy, a sports physical therapist usually comes to mind when people think of PT. While it may sound similar in nature to sports medicine, the field of sports physical therapy is not exactly the same as a sports medicine physician.  Both a sports PT and a sports medicine physician may work together to treat the same patients, but the daily job tasks are quite different.

Not only is the work different between a sports physical therapist and a sports medicine physician, but the training and education requirement for each specialty is unique between the two careers. 

Sports Medicine Physician

The path to becoming a sports medicine physician requires many years of schooling and extensive education training. After completing a 4 year undergraduate degree and 4 years of medical school, an additional 3 to 6 years of residency training is required depending on the type of sports medicine you choose.  For those interested in performing surgery, the choice to pursue an orthopedic surgery residency with a sports medicine fellowship requires an additional 5 to 6 years of training after medical school.  A physician may also specialize in non-surgical sports medicine by completing a primary care residency with an optional fellowship in sports medicine.  Both paths can lead a physician to a career of working closely with athletes, allowing the sports medicine physician to provide treatment and manage the rehabilitation needs through various resources. One of the most widely used resources is to recommend physical therapy.

Sports Physical Therapist

A sports physical therapist often works closely with physicians who refer patients to physical therapy.  Since the rehabilitation process can often last for weeks or months, sports physical therapists take the lead in providing treatment to patients multiple times a week and give regular updates to sports medicine physicians regarding the progress and status of the patient.  Many people choose to pursue a career as a sports therapist because they enjoy the active role of a sports therapist and have often experienced physical therapy as an athlete themselves. 

The role of a sports physical therapist is very important in sports medicine and is a fulfilling job for people who love to help athletes recover from injuries.  If you’re willing to commit the time to complete the education requirements and enjoy lifelong education as a medical professional, sports physical therapy may be a great career option.  

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Tim Fraticelli

Tim Fraticelli DPT, MBA and founder of PTProgress.com.  Tim is a Physical Therapist and enjoys working with patients and teaching PTs and students through his blog and YouTube channel


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