Jul 29, 2020, 9:54:28 AM CDT Feb 3, 2023, 4:11:13 PM CST

How physical therapy helps athletes and what to expect

For athletes facing an injury, physical therapy is an important part of recovery and returning to play safely

Physical therapist teaching students Physical therapist teaching students

Physical therapy is medical care that is directed at improving pain, movement and the ability to perform daily tasks and recreational activities with fewer complications, restrictions or movement impairments. For anyone who has faced an injury, physical therapy can drastically improve quality of life and the ability to fully recover.

"Physical therapy really is an essential element of health care," says Stephen LaPlante, Team Lead Physical Therapist at the Children's Health℠ Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine. "It has a tremendous impact on recovery, especially for athletes after a sports injury."

What are the benefits of physical therapy?

Physical therapy has many benefits for athletes, such as:

  • Reducing pain
  • Restoring mobility
  • Improving outcomes for recovery after injury
  • Decreasing risk of future injury
  • Increasing overall performance
  • Rebuilding strength

When an athlete gets injured, they often will experience pain and lose some motor control, which negatively impacts their ability to move properly. A physical therapist helps athletes regain their neuromuscular control which, in turn, helps them move more efficiently. After successful physical therapy treatment, athletes can typically return to sports with a decreased risk of injury.

Who needs physical therapy and how does it help?

Anyone who is injured or having difficulty performing daily or recreational activities such as baseball, football or running, should be seen by a physical therapist. If an athlete is continuously experiencing pain that is not getting better over a short period of time, they should be evaluated by a physical therapist.

LaPlante recommends seeing a physical therapist sooner rather than later, as early intervention can help prevent further injury.

"People tend to develop bad habits when they are in pain, such as moving differently than they normally would," he explains. "If we can address those issues earlier, it's a lot easier to address those movement inefficiencies."

What to expect at physical therapy

Typically, a first physical therapy appointment will include a thorough evaluation that can take anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes. A plan of care is developed based on the patient's goals, and they are given some exercises to start. Each subsequent visit includes a reassessment of the plan. "We make some changes to their plan based on how they respond," says LaPlante.

While it is common to experience soreness after the first few physical therapy sessions, it should get better with time and treatment. The cause of the soreness is a direct result of using muscles that have not been used for a while. The goal of physical therapy is to reduce pain over time.

As for the frequency of physical therapy sessions, LaPlante says it varies by case. "Our typical frequency is about two to three times per week and we strongly encourage all of our athletes to do their home physical therapy, or HPT, on a daily basis."

Home physical therapy consists of exercises that the therapist assigns to patients to practice at home. Continuing their care outside of scheduled appointments keeps them on track to recover as quickly as possible.

How long does it take for physical therapy to work?

The length of physical therapy depends on the specific case for each athlete. The severity of the injury typically determines how long it will take to recover. Each patient is different, but therapists work with patients to create goals and benchmarks.

"Minor strains and sprains may take four to six weeks for a full return to sport. Things like an ACL tear, shoulder labrum repair or other surgical cases may take closer to four to six months, or even as long as nine to 12 months," says LaPlante.

Ultimately, with hard work and dedication from both the athlete and physical therapist, recovery can be achieved with patience and diligence.

Learn more

The first pediatric institute of its kind in the region, the Children's Health Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine aims at reducing the number of children being sidelined from injury. Learn more about our wide range of services available to help athletes stay healthy and improve their game.

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