Why Physical Therapists and Athletic Trainers Should Work Together

By Riley Kerr PT, DPT, ATC

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Before we dive into what it looks like for physical therapists and athletic trainers to cooperate and collaborate, I think it’s important to understand the definitions and roles of each profession.

Let’s start with athletic trainers. Certified athletic trainers are trained in injury prevention, wellness promotion and education, emergent care, examination, therapeutic intervention and rehabilitation of injuries and medical conditions. Most often, athletic trainers work in high schools, colleges/universities or with professional sports teams.

Physical therapists are trained in advanced evaluation, diagnosis, rehabilitation, and management of patients with a variety of acute and chronic conditions. These conditions include musculoskeletal, neurological, cardiopulmonary and other disorders. Physical therapists are movement experts and treat with the goal of restoring and maintaining mobility, stability and strength. In general, PTs treat a much larger range of injuries and conditions.

So why should physical therapists and athletic trainers work together?

I like to imagine a really good book or a story. Generally, it starts with a prologue or intro. Then, the main story involves character development, conflict, plot twists and an overall theme that eventually leads to a conclusion. Sometimes the really good books include an epilogue – or an end-credits scene or two for all you Marvel nerds out there!

It’s essentially the same when it comes to athletic trainers and physical therapists working together. The prologue involves the initial injury and the immediate/emergency management of the injury by the athletic trainer. The main story includes the injury rehab process and movement correction led by the physical therapist and complemented by the athletic trainer. Finally, the epilogue calls for the return-to-sport testing and on-field conditioning performed by the athletic trainer. Without any one part of the story, it doesn’t make sense. One part informs the other. Without collaboration and communication within the healthcare team, the rehab process becomes sloppy, confusing and unfulfilling.

When physical therapists and athletic trainers work together – and work together well – the recovery and return-to-sport process has no plot holes. The athlete gets a complete and individualized program that addresses every deficit. When it comes time for the athlete to start participating again, the risk of injury or re-injury can be significantly less than if the physical therapist or athletic trainer worked alone.

From an insurance utilization standpoint, physical therapists and athletic trainers working together can allow for a more efficient use of physical therapy prescriptions. Depending on the insurance policy, an athlete may only be covered by insurance for a certain number of visits with a physical therapist. By working with an athletic trainer, a physical therapist can spread out scheduled visits with the athlete. Between physical therapy sessions, the athlete can continue their rehab with an athletic trainer and avoid exhausting their physical therapy prescription too quickly.

Physical therapists and athletic trainers are a small part of the larger healthcare team that’s responsible for the health and well-being of the athlete. Collaboration and cooperation within this team is essential to provide the athlete with the best possible chance of returning to sports confidently and safely.

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