Athletic Therapy and Physical Therapy: The Same? Or Worlds Apart?

The comparison of athletic and physical therapy has become a topic of great discussion not only at Lead, but across Canada and the USA as the popularity of both practices grows. Navigating between the two can be tricky. Having graduated in Iowa, USA from Athletic Training (American version of Athletic Therapy), and also in Saskatoon, Canada from Physical Therapy, I am somewhat well poised to discuss the difference between the two. Here is your cheat sheet for future reference (don’t worry, there is no quiz at the end of this post!). Given the circumstances, I have also included information mostly based on the Canadian requirements, since to compare notes on differences between countries is, honestly, exhausting.

Athletic Therapy – Requires a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university, hundreds of hours of unpaid practical internship (my count at graduation was 1200+), and passing of written and practical application board exams to obtain a license.

Physical Therapy – Ditto, except it requires an undergraduate degree and then a Master’s degree (as well as hundreds of unpaid practical hours, and then the successful completion of written and practical board exams to obtain a license).

That is all information that one can find by comparing accreditation websites, but the real secret is in the pudding. What is the difference in the skills and treatments provided? Stay tuned for the compare and contrast…

Both Athletic and Physical therapy use clinical reasoning to assess, treat, and create a plan for orthopedic injuries. Athletic therapy is mostly skilled at rehabilitating athletic/sporting injuries (sprains, strains, contusions, fractures, etc.) while Physical therapy involves more education to assess/treat not only musculoskeletal injuries (including sports injuries) but also orthopedic, neurological, and cardiovascular conditions (rheumatoid/osteoarthritis, MS, Parkinson’s, stroke, heart attack, etc.). An Athletic Therapist can do concussion management, exercise prescription, sports taping, equipment/brace fitting, return-to-play programming, and on-site sporting event medical coverage (all of which is also in the repertoire of a Physical Therapist), but Physical Therapists are also seen in hospitals, long term care facilities, pre-/post-surgical units, and working with car accident or work place injury victims.

There are also specialized training that might be pursued by either profession, but are dependent on the practitioner. Athletic or Physical Therapists may take certifications in different taping techniques such as Kinesiotape or Personal Training/Strength Training etc. Some areas of interest that are exclusive to use by a Physical Therapist include orthopedic manipulation (similar in ways but not the same as a Chiropractor), pelvic floor/women’s health certifications, and dry needling.

While this is not an exhaustive description of the different skills and training involved with each profession, it is a sampling which hopefully gives most people a bit more information to work with in deciphering the blurry lines between Athletic and Physical Therapy. They are two wonderfully similar but distinct professions that can be part of a well-balanced diet (channeling the Saturday morning commercial slogans). The best way to find out how they work is to experience them firsthand, and luckily for you, unlike the fabled gold at the end of a rainbow, they do exist and we are very excited to be able to offer both of these amazing modalities at Lead!

Written by Nicole Loucks, MPT/AT(c)