How does someone get back to the sport they love after a serious physical injury? Can rehabilitation give hope for even greater resilience? And can they ever be made whole again?
In some form or another, these are the questions swirling around every patient's mind when they visit JAG PT. That's understandable, given that in the U.S., the highest number of emergency department visits are caused by contact sports in football, bicycling, basketball, soccer, and swimming, as well as injuries sustained through exercise and exercise equipment.
The recovery process after a sports injury can be a long and arduous journey without the structure of a rehabilitation process. It has to occur in stages, and each stage addresses significant rehabilitation goals that align with the body's natural healing process.
That's what a sports rehabilitation therapist can help you achieve.
The 5 Stages of Rehabilitation in Sports
Successful rehabilitation is responsive, progressive, and personalized — so there's no one-size-fits-all recovery process. Regardless, JAG PTs and athletic trainers will begin with an assessment and rehabilitation plan.
The plan itself could include modalities that range from functional training and sports massage to gait analysis and alterG anti-gravity treadmill (especially useful if you're a triathlete or marathon runner looking to enable faster rehabilitation after injury and a safer conditioning process). Athletic trainers will also often include return to sport therapy and an injury prevention program.
The five stages of sports injury recovery remain the same across the board for patients undergoing the rehabilitation of sports injuries.
Stage #1: Rest and Protect
In the first phase of rehabilitation, the only focus is to address pain symptoms, offload any movement, rest the afflicted area, and protect it from further trauma — whether that's swelling, inflammation, inability to access a normal range of motion, muscle weakness, or joint and muscle tenderness.
Rest doesn't necessarily mean being completely bedridden or stopping daily activities. Research shows that it's important to continue to engage in functional movement in other ways. Just know that your level of activity will be modified, so the activities themselves are designed to take the pressure off the injured area. A good example of this is pool running instead of land running. It keeps your muscles from becoming deconditioned but doesn't aggravate the injured area.
Stage #2: Mobility and Movement
All muscular strength relies on your body's joint mobility and range of motion. The muscles work together with joints to flex, stretch, exert, and respond. After an injury, whether due to tissue healing or simple non-use, the injured area is likely to feel stiff, and moving it may even cause some discomfort or initial pain. Regaining flexibility and mobility in the joints is what this phase of rehabilitation is all about.
To restore mobility and range of motion, PTs will use muscle stretching, flexibility training, and therapeutic exercise. There are several simple activities and exercises you can do at home that will return movement and mobility to the affected area. Thoracic spine windmills, wall angels, shoulder pass-throughs, and walking hip openers are extremely useful for physical activity at this stage.
Stage #3: Strength and Stamina
Feeling limber and open? Great! The next stage of recovery is all about rebuilding muscle strength, stamina, and endurance.
Simple bodyweight exercises can reforge the mid-body reconnection for an individual athlete while the use of an isometric exercise like plank or a glute bridge can help rebuild strength in one specific area. Once you're ready, you can opt for low-load exercises or even unique modalities like blood flow restriction therapy to induce high muscle fatigue without the strain of heavy weights. It's all about load progression.
And because breath is such a significant aspect of endurance and strength, a PT will use cues during training to make sure that a patient is accurately maintaining exercise form and posture without the breath hitching (which could indicate that the patient has taken on more than they're ready for).
Stage #4: Reconnecting to Coordination
Think about how you know where to put your foot, completely unconsciously, when you're on a long walk. Or reach out and touch your elbow with your eyes closed. Your body and mind know precisely where to go in space thanks to proprioception, which is our body's ability to put together movement, action, and location in very intuitive and seemingly automatic ways.
And the rehabilitation of sports injuries needs to address this next because sports-related injuries can sometimes have an effect on our proprioception.
Often, after acute injuries, trauma to the musculoskeletal system can throw off our spatial awareness and coordination. We commonly think of these difficulties in relation to a concussion — but even trauma to a hip joint or recovering after a knee injury like an ACL reconstruction can affect our body's balance, coordination, and muscular movements.
Your PT may include exercises and movements designed to return neuromuscular control, including:
- Single-leg standing on a variety of surfaces
- The T-stance balance exercise
- Using a BAPS board for range of motion
Stage #5: Rebuilding Sport-Specific Technical Movements
At this advanced stage of rehabilitation, you'll put all your progressive healing and gains together to get back to performing complex movements that are sport-specific. Athletic trainers with a physical therapy background will focus on helping you to perform movements like rotation, swinging, catching, hitting, cutting, pivoting, and even turning in the context of your sport.
And, if this is where you sustained the injury, your sport-specific training will focus on preventing the same conditions or movements that caused the damage or aggravated the area to begin with. Only when you focus on mastering sport-specific technical movements, under the guidance of an experienced and empathetic PT, can you look forward to a safe return to competition.
Sports rehabilitation focuses on diagnosing, treating, and even preventing injuries that come from playing sports or living an active lifestyle. Your heart and brain health may thank you for that, but your musculoskeletal system definitely bears the brunt of these fun but strenuous activities.
Because our bodies are capable of, and likely engaged in, complex movements when playing sports or participating in recreational activities, targeting the source of pain can be tricky. It could be a group of muscles firing incorrectly causing neck pain, for example. Or it could be improper form when throwing a baseball repetitively that causes inflammation of the soft tissues (muscles, tendons, and ligaments).
The first step to a safe return is an accurate diagnosis, rest, and recovery under the supervision of an experienced, compassionate sports injury rehabilitation therapist. At JAG PT, our team of experienced PTs and physiotherapists helps injured athletes meet their rehab goals and create a recovery plan designed to prevent as much as treat.
Learn More About Sports Rehab from JAG PT: