Physical therapy professional helping a male athlete use equipment

The Role of PTAs in Sports Rehabilitation

What They Do, Why They’re In Demand, and How to Become One

Physical therapy professional helping a male athlete use equipment

Billions of people around the world find great enjoyment in sports—whether it’s watching the pros or participating themselves. The human body is capable of some pretty incredible things, both athletically and in recovering from the injuries that can happen during intense activity.

Physical therapist assistants (PTAs) in sports rehabilitation work with athletes to help them achieve the best possible performance—whether that’s improving their conditioning or coming back from an injury that’s kept them on the sidelines. If you’re obsessed with sports, you’re a fitness enthusiast, or you just love helping others reach their full potential, becoming a sports PTA could be your calling!

This article will go in-depth on a career as a sports PTA, including common conditions they treat, some of the techniques they use while working with athletes, and the education and experience required to launch your career in sports rehabilitation.

Looking to learn more about a career as a PTA? Check out our in-depth guide on how to become a physical therapist assistant, or explore our hand-picked collection of the top PTA jobs.

Understanding The Role of PTAs in Sports Rehabilitation

Physical therapist assistants who work in sports rehabilitation benefit athletes in a variety of ways. The training programs they implement are essential for conditioning athletes’ bodies to withstand the demands of their sport and reduce the risk of injury. Sports PTAs also help athletes recover from training sessions or competitions, to help them be at their best physically and mentally.

Injuries are an unfortunate reality of sports—and when they do occur, sports PTAs are instrumental in helping athletes recover and regain their previous level of performance. Whether it’s a minor ankle sprain or a major reconstructive surgery, physical therapy is essential for restoring strength and range of motion in athletes. It also helps prevent imbalances or abnormal movement patterns that can lead to setbacks in recovery or cause entirely separate injuries.

The Role of PTAs in Sports Injury Management

Like in any physical therapy environment, sports PTAs work under the direction of a supervising physical therapist. They’re also likely to work closely with other professionals like athletic trainers, physicians, or other healthcare professionals.

While PTAs don’t diagnose conditions or prescribe treatment plans as part of their scope of practice, they’re instrumental in supporting physical therapists in implementing the plan of care. Sports PTAs guide their patients through warm-up and cool-down routines before therapy sessions, demonstrate how to perform rehabilitative exercises with the correct form, and supervise athletes during therapy sessions to ensure their comfort and safety.

Closely tracking their patients’ progress is another important part of a PTA’s job. For example, measuring changes in range of motion over time can help determine whether the athlete’s recovery plan is progressing as expected, or if they’ve pushed themselves too hard. PTAs are also instrumental in teaching athletes of all types about the importance of proper recovery, sleep, and nutrition—all of which can have a massive impact on performance.

Common Sports Injuries Treated by PTAs

Even the best-conditioned athletes will have to deal with an injury at some point. Athletic injuries could be caused by over-training, by an awkward collision or fall, or by plain old bad luck.

Fortunately, sports rehabilitation techniques have come a long way since a torn knee ligament was considered a career-ending injury. Some of the most common conditions sports PTAs treat include:

ACL tear – One of the structural knee ligaments that connects the lower and upper leg, ACL tears affect athletes and hobbyists in countless different sports. These injuries can happen when an athlete’s knee twists or plants in just the wrong way, and in many cases, they need surgical repair.

While an ACL injury used to be a major concern for athletes, surgical repair techniques and physical therapy treatments have progressed to the point that it’s possible to be back in action at near-full strength within about 6 months. Through rehabilitative exercises, manual therapy techniques, and other treatments like taping and bracing once an athlete returns to activity, sports PTAs help athletes regain their strength, mobility, and confidence in their injured knees.

Asian woman gripping her shoulder in pain

Rotator cuff injury – It takes a complicated joint to enable our shoulders’ massive range of motion, and athletes can experience a variety of shoulder injuries due to overuse, sudden impacts, or other causes. Some rotator cuff injuries can be treated with physical therapy alone to strengthen the surrounding muscles, though others may require surgery to stabilize the shoulder or prevent recurring issues.

Whether or not an athlete needs surgery, sports PTAs provide hands-on treatments and guidance with exercise routines that allow athletes with shoulder injuries to rebuild their strength and range of motion. Shoulders can quickly become stiff when an athlete is in a sling for weeks or months, so stretching and muscle-building exercises are essential for regaining full function and avoiding any imbalances or mobility limitations.

Tennis elbow/golf elbow – These common conditions are caused by irritated tendons in the forearms and can lead to pain on the inside or outside of the elbow. And it’s not just tennis players or golfers that experience elbow issues. They can affect athletes in any sport that involves gripping and wrist extension or be caused by repetitive stress injuries from workplace tasks or home chores.

Physical therapy for tennis or golf elbow often involves manual therapy and strengthening exercises, in addition to other modalities like heat and cold therapy. Even without major structural damage, elbow injuries can be quite painful and limiting. Sports PTAs can make all the difference in teaching athletes how to minimize the risk of recurring pain or re-injury.

Fractures – Bone fractures can happen to athletes in any sport, but they’re more common in contact sports and those that come with the risk of taking a high-speed tumble. Some severe fractures require surgery to reset the bone or insert plates, screws, or other hardware, while others may just need to be put in a splint or a cast.

Fractures almost always need to be immobilized for at least a few weeks to allow the bone to heal and regrow itself, and if an athlete has to undergo surgery, that time maybe even longer. Following a fracture, sports PTAs help athletes loosen up stiff joints and regain lost muscle due to atrophy, which is important to avoid other injuries caused by overcompensating muscle imbalances.

Concussions – Athletes in many sports are at risk for traumatic brain injuries due to awkward falls or collisions with other competitors. Following a head injury that causes a minor to moderate concussion, sports PTAs can help athletes resolve balance or dizziness issues with certain techniques and exercises. However, athletes with severe TBIs that affect everyday functioning may be referred to a PT care team specializing in neurology until their condition improves enough to consider a return to sports.

Aside from the above injuries that commonly affect athletes, there are many other conditions and complications sports PTAs are likely to treat throughout their careers. Through collaboration with their supervising therapist, athletic trainers, physicians, or other healthcare staff, PTAs in sports rehabilitation help athletes of all ages and levels accomplish their recovery goals.

Techniques Used in Sports Rehabilitation

Physical therapist assistants who specialize in sports rehabilitation have a wide array of techniques and treatments at their disposal. Some of the most common techniques used by sports PTAs include:

Therapeutic exercises Through exercises that target specific movements and muscle groups, PTAs can help athletes recover their range of motion and rebuild strength in injured parts of the body.

Physical therapy professional helping a patient use an exercise band

Manual therapy – Manual therapy techniques like stretching and massage are useful for loosening stiff muscles and joints and encouraging recovery after major training efforts or competitions.

Electrical stimulation or ultrasound These treatment modalities can be useful in managing pain and inflammation, encouraging healthy tissue regrowth, and breaking up scar tissue following surgery or major injury.

Heat and cold therapy – Heat or ice packs are simple, useful tools in both warm-up and cooldown routines for both healthy athletes and those recovering from injury. Used properly, heat and cold can help manage pain and inflammation in nearly any part of the body.

Taping and bracing – When recovering athletes get back to their activity of choice, it’s common for sports PTAs to help apply athletic tape, kinesio tape, or braces and sleeves that offer extra support or compression to the injured area.

PTAs in sports rehabilitation are likely to work with athletes from just about every sport imaginable, with a massive variety of injuries and different body types. By staying flexible, adaptable, and attentive to each patient’s needs, sports PTAs can give the athletes under their care the best chance at making a full recovery.

How to Become a Sports Rehabilitation PTA

To specialize in sports rehabilitation as a physical therapist assistant, you’ll start with the essential first step of earning your PTA degree. From there, gaining relevant experience and completing sports-focused continuing education can qualify you for a career as a sports PTA. To make it happen, let’s take a look at the big-picture goals you’ll need to accomplish.

Earn your PTA Degree & License

Earning your associate’s degree from an accredited physical therapist assistant program is the first and most important step in the process. Many PTA programs take two full years to complete, but some schools offer accelerated programs that can speed up the time it takes to graduate. After earning your degree and passing the PTA version of the National Physical Therapy Exam, you’ll be eligible to earn your PTA license on a state-by-state basis.

Gain Experience as a PTA

After you’ve earned your license, you’re ready to land your first job as a PTA! Any work experience is valuable at the beginning of your career, though PTAs interested in sports rehabilitation should focus on sports medicine orthopedic clinics or other physical therapy facilities that treat a high volume of athletes.

Enroll in the APTA’s Advanced Proficiency Pathway Program

The American Physical Therapy Association offers Advanced Proficiency Pathways for several PTA specialties—including orthopedics, which will be relevant for treating the majority of sports injuries. These advanced pathways build upon your baseline PTA knowledge to make you more effective in working with certain conditions or patient populations. As part of the process, you’ll need to find a supervising sports PT to oversee your progress through the program and serve as a mentor.

Complete Continuing Education Requirements

In most states, PTAs are required to complete continuing education courses to keep their license active. For sports PTAs, these could include courses related to new treatment methods, the latest advancements in exercise science, or many other topics related to athletic performance and recovery.

Like any healthcare provider, learning is a career-long pursuit for PTAs in sports rehabilitation. Staying current on the latest evidence-based treatments and techniques ensures your patients receive high-quality care while also putting you in a better position for lasting career success.

Challenges PTAs Face in Sports Rehabilitation

Although treating athletes is a rewarding career path for PTAs, it’s not without its difficult moments. Athletes who are accustomed to being in full control of their bodies may feel frustrated by slow progress or a long recovery timeline. Sports PTAs must be able to manage athletes’ sometimes-unrealistic expectations, and be able to offer motivation and moral support to patients who may be feeling down after missing out on their favorite activities.

PTAs who work with sports teams may also be asked to provide treatment in less-than-perfect environments, like a locker room or on the side of a field in inclement weather. Coordinating treatment for large groups of people can also be a logistical and organizational challenge— fortunately, you’ll have your supervising PT to show you the ropes and steer you in the right direction.

Physical therapy professional examining a man's back

Benefits of Working in Sports Rehabilitation

Many sports PTAs find working with athletes rewarding on multiple levels. Everyone loves a good comeback story, and PTAs get to be a part of writing those stories every day for the people they treat. The treatments and education PTAs provide to athletes can help them return stronger than ever, and achieve new heights of performance after overcoming the setback in their training.

It’s also common for PTAs to find that athletes are relatively “good patients,” meaning they’re diligent about completing their assigned exercises and activities at home. Athletes are used to pushing themselves and following routines, and that same mentality often leads them to great results in physical therapy—which is incredibly satisfying to witness when you know you’ve played a part!

Start Your Sports PTA Career Journey at Provo College

Working with athletes who are committed to improving themselves is motivating and inspiring, especially for sports PTAs who have a hands-on role in facilitating recovery and performance. As a physical therapist assistant in sports rehabilitation, you’ll help people overcome hurdles to pursuing their passions, and help them progress toward the best version of themselves.

Earning your PTA degree from a school that puts you first can make all the difference when you’re transitioning into a new career. The accelerated physical therapist assistant program at Provo College gives you the skills and confidence to work with athletes and other physical therapy patients and makes it possible to earn your degree in under two years.

You’ll receive hands-on instruction from experienced instructors and build a well-rounded skill set that gives you options for your future career as a PTA. And with a dedicated career services team to help you find your first job, you’ll have ongoing support even after graduation.

Learn more about the PTA program at Provo College, or dive into our detailed guide on how to become a sports physical therapist assistant.