Physical Therapist Assistants (PTA) Specialized in Sports Rehabilitation

From sprains and swollen muscles, to fractured bones and torn ACLs, sports of every kind carry some risk of injury. Many times, physical therapy serves as the preferred form of therapy for sports injuries, whether they threaten to sideline the athlete for a week, a season, or worse, a career.

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Athletic physical therapist assistants, working under the guidance and supervision of licensed physical therapists, provide evaluation and treatment services for athletes with sports injuries.

Physical therapist assistants may work with athletes whose injuries resulted from any number of factors, such as:

  • Accidents
  • Poor training methods
  • Inadequate warm-ups
  • Lack of conditioning
  • Fatigue
  • Dehydration
  • Overuse

As part of a physical therapy program, physical therapist assistants help athletes rebuild strength and movement to specific areas of the body following an injury. Many times, physical therapy also provides pain relief and helps prevent permanent damage and/or reoccurring problems.

In addition to addressing injuries to muscles, joints, and bones, today’s athletic physical therapist assistants must also often accommodate the special needs of patients with concussions. Because concussions are one of the most difficult-to-manage injuries in sports today, physical therapist assistants often serve as valuable members of a patient’s multi-disciplinary medical team, providing tips for safe, at-home exercises and activities during the recovery period.

Physical therapy programs for athletes are highly specialized to address the specifics of a given injury. Sports physical therapist assistants help athletes address their injuries through exercises, stretches, and techniques involving specialized equipment (TENS, ultrasound, heat therapy, etc.).

Sports physical therapy programs also often include specialty services, such as:

  • ACL surgery rehabilitation
  • Sports injury rehabilitation for athletes with disabilities
  • Crutches training
  • Pre- and post-surgery programs
  • Gait evaluations
  • Injury prevention screenings
  • Aquatic therapy
  • Pre-participation sports analysis
  • Return to sports testing
  • Taping and bracing education


Job Duties of Athletic Physical Therapist Assistants in Sports Rehabilitation

Athletic physical therapist assistants have a multitude of job duties, including:

Examining and Evaluating Patients

The first step to establishing and implementing a physical therapy program involves examining patients to determine the existence of any weak or inflexible muscles that could make them prone to injury.

Sports physical therapist assistants also examine the biomechanics of athletes participating in specific sports, particularly for sports where repetitive motion injuries are commonplace. For example, athletes such as golfers, pitchers, and tennis players suffer from repetitive motion injuries because they constantly go through the same motions, which put certain parts of the body through stress.

Many times, physical therapist assistants re-evaluate their patients on a daily basis, as they must be aware of the normal healing process of a sports injury as healing progresses through the acute, subacute, and chronic phases. This means that physical therapist assistants must not only provide physical therapy treatment to the athletes they serve, but they must also accurately diagnose the phase of recovery their patients are in.

Implementing a Treatment Program

Each phase of the recovery process requires a different approach to physical therapy:

  • Acute Phase: Involves the Protection-Rest-Ice-Compression-Elevation (PRICE) Principle, which prevents inflammation and allows healing to begin
  • Subacute Phase: Involves a control motion phase during which physical therapist assistants help athletes carefully perform active-assisted range of motion and strengthening exercises
  • Chronic Phase: Involves return-to-function activities where physical therapist assistants help athletes progressively return to their pre-injury workout routines

Educating Patients on the Prevention of Sports Injuries

Often times, the education that physical therapist assistants provide their patients is just as important as the programs they implement.

Through education, physical therapist assistants ensure that their patients continue to implement specific routines and activities long after the conclusion of their physical therapy program so as to prevent future sports injuries.

Sometimes this means adding proper stretching techniques to their pre-game or warmup routine. Other times, it means fixing specific motions or avoiding certain activities that increase the risk of injury.

Providing Performance Enhancement Services

Although rehabilitating athletes with sports injuries is the major job duty of physical therapist assistants in sports, these rehabilitative medicine professionals also provide physical therapy services aimed at performance enhancement.

Sports physical therapist assistants help athletes and others involved in sports-related activities improve their performance by conducting a thorough evaluation and identifying their strengths and weaknesses. Sports physical therapist assistants assess any areas of deficiency in the athlete’s endurance, flexibility, aerobic ability, and muscular strength through a unique process called biomechanical analysis. Therapists then go on to create specific physical therapy programs to addresses these deficiencies.

Physical Therapist Assistants: Education and Training Options

Becoming a PTA always involves completing an associate’s degree program that has been accredited through the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE), passing the PTA National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE), and earning state licensure as a physical therapist assistant.

While earning an associate’s degree in physical therapist assisting, students have the option of studying athletic physical therapy more in-depth by choosing elective courses in this area of study.

Many times, the most effective way to gain expertise in sports physical therapy is to work with a licensed physical therapist that possesses a specialist certification in sports through the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialists (ABPTS).

Just a few of the settings in which sports physical therapist assistants work include:

  • Fitness centers/gyms
  • Rehabilitation centers
  • Sports facilities
  • Sports medicine centers

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