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Physical Therapy for the Injured Athlete: An Introduction

While all sports involve a certain level of  inherent risk, a season-ending injury is one of a parent, coach, and youth athlete's worst nightmares.  A serious injury can present a sports parent with a seemingly never-ending series of worst-case scenarios, from  severe depression that can occur when an athlete - especially a teen - is temporarily deprived of the camaraderie and social status that  members of a team enjoy, to complications after surgery, to a fear that their child will be forced by injury to retire from their sport. In other words, pretty scary stuff.

The good news is that the vast majority of youth sports injuries are not serious, much less catastrophic. Strained muscles, sprained ankles, and bruises are usually the worst of it. In some cases, more severe injuries, such as tears of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), rotator cuff or ulnar ligament in the elbow, to name a few, may require surgery.  In most cases - emphasis on the word "most" - even those athletes requiring surgery are able to return to their chosen sport.

Rehabilitation following surgery almost always involves physical therapy, but even injuries such as a pulled hamstring, strained lower back, or perhaps a fractured wrist, may prompt a parent to take the injured athlete to see a physical therapist. 

Typically, the first question an athlete asks a physical therapist is, "When can I get back in the game?" And, as much as the question is first and foremost in the mind of a young athlete, it is a question that weighs far heavier in the minds of parents. After all, physical therapists and doctors only see patients at scheduled visits; parents have to live with their child's concerns and fears, and their own, 24/7.

Question time

The questions parents ask a physical therapist run the gamut, but here are just a few:

  • What exercises should my son be doing?
  • Do I need a note for the school for my child to use elevator?
  • How long is therapy going to take?
  • How much is this going to cost?
  • How many weeks is my child going to be here?
  • My daughter's tryouts are in 3 weeks, is she going to be able to make it?
  • Why is my child being able to balance on one leg so important?
  • It has been 3 months, the ACL should be healed, right?

The list of possible questions in the Internet age is almost endless, limited only by the imagination of a parent in posing search engine queries about their child's injury.

It is my hope to provide in a series of articles for MomsTeam answers to some of the ones, as a physical therapist, I get again and again, to educate parents on the ins and outs of the physical therapy process.  In doing so, my goal will be to decrease parental anxiety, some of which results from a fear of the unknown and/or frustration about not knowing what physical therapy is all about.

I will not be able to address all of a parent's specific concerns, but at the very least my hope is to turn parents into educated consumers because, paraphrasing the famous tagline for a clothing store, "An educated consumer is [a PT's] best customer!"

First in a series.

Keith Cronin is a physical therapist in the St. Louis area and was recently selected as a Recommended Expert by the American Coaching Academy. Have questions? You can e-mail him at kjcronin@hotmail.com.

Posted December 7, 2011 Updated April 6, 2015