Sports Injury Specialist: Physical Therapy Vs. Sports Medicine. Which is Right for You?

Approximately 8.6 million cases of sports-and-recreation-related injury occurred in the U.S. from 2011 through 2014, per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). When sports injuries occur, a sports injury specialist is consulted by the athlete and/or the athlete’s family. There are two types of sports injury specialists, physical therapists, and sports medicine physicians. In this article, we will discuss physical therapy vs. sports medicine. Our goal is to help you find out which specialist is the right one for you.

Physical Therapy Vs. Sports Medicine: Should you choose a physical therapist or sports medical doctor?

What is a Sports Injury Specialist?

A sports injury specialist is a licensed health professional who specializes in the treatment and rehabilitation of sports-related injuries. He or she works with amateur and professional athletes as well as active people who want to maintain a healthy way of life.

As stated earlier, there are two types of sports injury specialist: physical therapists and sports medicine physicians. It is important to note that physical therapy and sports medicine are often mistaken for being the same. This is understandable since both fields concentrate on healing injuries of the muscles and bones. But there are differences between the two.

Physical Therapy vs. Sports Medicine: What is the difference?

Physical therapists are “health care professionals who diagnose and treat individuals of all ages, from newborns to the very oldest, who have medical problems or other health-related conditions that limit their abilities to move and perform functional activities in their daily lives.”

American Physical Therapy Association (APTA)

A sports medicine physician provides “comprehensive medical care for athletes, sports teams or active individuals.” They have significant specialized training in non-surgical sports medicine.

American Medical Society for Sports Medicine

What Education is Required Before Becoming a Credentialed Physical Therapists or Sports Medicine Physician?

A physical therapist has a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. It is a post-baccalaureate degree that takes 3 years or 8 to 9 semesters to complete. Most DPT programs require a bachelor’s degree and specific prerequisites such as classes in biology, physics, chemistry, physiology, psychology, anatomy, and statistics.

In addition to a four-year bachelor’s degree, four years in medical school, and earning a license, sports medical doctors are required to complete 3 to 5 years of residency and fellowship, and they also have to earn board certification in sports medicine.

Sports medicine physicians are also trained to address problems associated with proper diet, sports psychology, and substance abuse.

What Does a Sports Medicine Doctor do?

There are sports injury doctors who provide hands-on therapy but a greater part of their practice involves diagnosing injuries and disorders, conducting in-office sports medicine procedures and prescribing medication for the treatment of injuries, ordering diagnostic tests, and referring patients to physical therapists for specialized therapy.

What Sports Medicine Procedures do These Doctors Perform?

Following are some medical procedures that your sports medicine physician may provide:

Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) Reconstruction

The ACL is a ligament in the knee. The ACL keeps the knee joint stable especially in activities that involve kicking, pivoting, or weaving. For this reason, the ACL is the most commonly torn ligament in the knee. When this happens, the knee becomes unstable and if not treated, may become more damaged over time. Most patients who undergo this procedure are given general anesthesia just before surgery. Others are given regional anesthesia or a block.

Arthroscopy of Knees, Shoulders, Elbows, and Ankles

Arthroscopy is a surgical procedure wherein an orthopedic sports medicine doctor examines the internal structure of a joint for diagnosis and/or treatment using an arthroscope, a pencil-sized flexible instrument fitted with a miniature camera, a light, and precision tools at the end of its tubes. The procedure involves making tiny incisions in the skin into the joint that will be examined. The arthroscope, which is connected to a video camera is inserted and the surgeon sees the interior of the joint on a television monitor. The surgeon will be able to determine the type of injury based on the image on the screen. It will also show the surgeon whether the joint needs to be repaired or not.

Articular Cartilage Restoration

The articular cartilage is the white tissue covering the ends of bones at the point where they come together to form joints. It can get damaged by injury or wear and tear as you age. Sports medical doctors have developed this procedure to stimulate the growth of new cartilage. When articular cartilage is restored, the patient feels relief from pain and can move better. This procedure can also help delay or prevent the onset of arthritis.

Fracture Repair

There are three treatment options for bone fractures:

  1. Casting
  2. Open reduction, and internal fixation which involves surgery using metal rods, screws or plates. This is the recommended procedure for complicated fractures that cannot be realigned by casting. This is also preferable compared to the long-term use of a cast.
  3. Open reduction, and external fixation which involves surgery and placement of an external fixation device on the limb with the fracture. This procedure is used for fractures that cannot be repaired using open reduction, and internal fixation.

Labral Repair

A labral tear is an injury to the labrum of the shoulder – the ring of cartilage surrounding the socket of the shoulder joint. Sports medicine physicians will do a physical examination and order some imaging tests such as X-rays and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). In several cases, initial treatment is nonsurgical and may include taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication to reduce pain and swelling, and physical therapy. If there is no improvement, surgery will be recommended.

Meniscus Repair

A common injury to the cartilage that stabilizes and cushions the knee joint is called a meniscus tear. Horizontal, flap long-standing, and degenerative tears caused by wear and tear, generally, cannot be repaired. However, radial tears can sometimes be repaired, depending on their location. A small tear at the “red zone” (outer edge of the meniscus), may heal with rest or home treatment. A moderate to large tear at the “red zone” may need surgery.

Rotator Cuff Repair

The rotator cuff is made up of muscles and 4 separate tendons that fuse together to surround the shoulder joint. When this is injured, a physical exam will be conducted and some tests will be done such as ultrasound MRI scan, arthroscopy, or arthrogram. Initial treatment is usually nonsurgical. The patient will be instructed to rest and use an arm sling and take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to relieve pain and swelling. In some cases, topical pain relievers such as creams or patches may be applied to the area. Physical therapy may also be recommended to help strengthen the shoulder area. If the bony structures impinge the rotator cuff, acromioplasty surgery will be done. It may be arthroscopic or open surgery.

Shoulder Instability Surgery

Shoulder instability is a physical condition wherein the shoulder joint is loose or unstable because of weakened and stretched surrounding ligaments. This may be a chronic condition after the shoulder has been dislocated. In some cases, an unstable shoulder is the result of repetitive overuse in an overhead athlete, such as a tennis player, volleyball player or a swimmer. Initial treatment includes resting the affected arm, use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication and physical therapy. If these fail to provide relief, however, surgery will be recommended.

Tendon Repair

Tendon repair surgery is done to fix damaged or torn tendons. It is helpful for people who have tendon injuries that have made it difficult for them to move a joint or injuries that are very painful. Anesthesia is given to patients before surgery. It may be local, regional, or general anesthesia. The sports medicine doctor makes incisions over the injured tendon and the damaged ends are sewn together. In some cases, the joint may need to be immobilized by a cast or splint to allow the tendon to heal.


What Does a Physical Therapist do?

A physical therapist is not just a sports injury specialist. They also provide therapy that focuses on healing muscle and bone injuries using non-invasive techniques. Physical therapists work with patients over a span of time. The treatment they provide involves assessment of their patient’s physical abilities and providing the appropriate therapies while helping the patient learn the therapy techniques.

A physical therapist makes sure that his or her patient will be able to practice techniques on their own. Once a patient is able to practice on his own, the physical therapist will reassess the patient’s progress.

What Type of Therapies do Physical Therapists Provide?

Concussion Management

Physical therapists work with athletic trainers in evaluating, treating, and managing patients who have suffered from concussions or concussion-related problems. All patients are closely evaluated, screened, treated and monitored until full recovery. Each patient has a rehabilitation program designed and implemented to meet his or her specific needs.

Dry Needling

This technique uses a “dry” needle – one that does not have medication or injection. It is inserted through the skin into areas of the muscle. It is not acupuncture. It is a Western medicine practice supported by research.

This technique is typically part of a larger treatment plan. Physical therapists use this technique to release or inactivate trigger points (taut bands of skeletal muscle within a larger muscle group), to relieve pain or improve range of motion.

Therapy for Fibromyalgia

A physical therapist can help ease the symptoms of fibromyalgia. Some therapies that he or she can provide are deep tissue massage, low-impact aerobic conditioning (water aerobics), pain relief exercise, stretching and strengthening exercises, TENS units (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation), and ultrasound.

Injury Screening

If the patient has a nagging pain that will not go away, physical therapists can do injury screenings. They will evaluate the patient’s pain, mobility, and overall body movement. Then, a program will be designed that will address a patient’s specific needs.

Manual Therapy

Physical therapists use skilled hand and passive movements of joints and soft tissue with the intent to improve tissue extensibility; increase range of motion; mobilize or manipulate joints and soft tissue; modulate pain; reduce soft tissue swelling, inflammation or restriction; and to induce relaxation

Pre and Post-Operative Care

Pre-operative rehabilitation is designed by physical therapists to help patients before surgery so that they can have a great outcome after surgery. The goal of this program involves mentally preparing the patient for surgery; reducing pain and inflammation; restoring range of motion; improving muscular control of the injured joint; normalizing movement patterns prior to surgery; helping patients’ gain a good understanding of the exercise they will perform immediately after surgery; and improving the patients’ overall well-being and fitness.

On the other hand, post-operative rehabilitation comes after surgery. In some cases, it is a period of immobilization after surgery. The purpose of this is to help the patient regain mobility and strength and ultimately return to normal daily activities.

Spine Rehabilitation

Physical therapists provide therapeutic exercise and postural correction exercises along with manual therapy to help alleviate patients’ back pain and restore function.

Total Joint Rehab

Physical therapists play a primary role in the rehabilitation of patients who have received a total joint replacement of the knee, hip, or shoulder. They help restore the patients’ strength, mobility, flexibility, endurance, range of motion, self-care skills, and the ability to perform day-to-day activities prior to total joint replacement procedure.

Vestibular Therapy

This program is designed to improve a patient’s balance and reduce problems with dizziness (e.g. vertigo, Meniere’s syndrome, migraines, imbalance, benign paroxysmal positional vertigo), patients who have suffered a stroke or brain injury.

Which Sports Injury Specialist is Right for You?

Sports medical doctors and physical therapists have a variety of treatments to offer patients. This may make it difficult to figure out which sports injury specialist is right for you.

When it comes to surgery, sports medicine physicians are the obvious choice.

Physical therapists spend a length of time with their patients, from evaluating the injury, providing therapies, teaching patients to learn to do specific exercises on their own, to reassessing patients after therapy.

Physical therapists are able to follow the natural progression of healing, and this proves that when it comes to a more hands-on approach to treatment or an alternative to surgery, physical therapy is a better option over sports medicine.

If you want to know more about what other treatments physical therapists can offer you, please contact Vigor Physical Therapy & Rehabilitation today. Our staff will be happy to answer your questions and help schedule an appointment.