A key part of staying healthy is physical exercise. If you are a keen fitness enthusiast, ensuring you are exercising safely is crucial, though even the most careful of us can succumb to injury. When exercise or sport is a big part of your life, recovering from injury is paramount.
This is where sports therapy can help. On this page we'll look at what sports therapy entails, common sports injuries and different treatments that may be used.
What is sports therapy?
There is often confusion regarding the difference between physiotherapy and sports therapy as they both deal with similar health concerns. While sports therapists do apply physiotherapy skills, sports therapy is specifically concerned with the prevention and treatment of sport-related injuries using a variety of modalities and techniques.
Another common misconception is that sports therapists only work with professional athletes – this is not true. No matter what your occupation is (or your sporting ability), if your injury is sports/exercise related, a sports therapist will look to help you.
Utilising the principles of sports sciences, the therapy uses various techniques, such as sports massage, to help fully rehabilitate those with injuries and help them heal as quickly as possible. As well as helping you to recover from injury, a sports therapist will also use their skills to optimise your performance and support you in your sporting/exercise endeavours.
The Society of Sports Therapists defines a sports therapist as a healthcare professional who has the knowledge, skills and ability to do the following:
- utilise sports and exercise principles to optimise performance
- provide immediate care of injuries
- offer basic life support in a recreational, training and/or competitive environment
- provide sport and remedial massage in a sport and exercise context
- plan and implement appropriate rehabilitation programmes.
A sports therapist should also be qualified to refer patients to other medical specialists as and when required.
Common sports injuries
When you exercise or play sports regularly, certain parts of the body can become susceptible to strain or injury. Sports injuries can be caused by various things including not warming up properly, pushing yourself too hard or simply suffering an accident. When injuries happen, they usually require you to stay off your feet while you heal.
While of course exercise is beneficial to your health, it is important to be aware of some common sports injuries. If you feel pain somewhere in your body when exercising or playing a sport, be sure to seek medical advice as you may have injured yourself.
Listed below are some common sports injuries to be aware of:
Many people will suffer from back pain at some point in their life, whether it's due to a recurring problem or bad posture. Those who exercise regularly may also encounter back problems. The most common of which are muscle strains and ligament sprains. Athletic overuse, insufficient stretching or even trauma can cause these sorts of sprains.
Other common injury in sports enthusiasts is spondylolysis and spondylolisthesis. Defects of a vertebra's pars interarticularis ("the part between the articulations" in Latin) are called spondylolysis and the slippage of one vertebra in relation to another vertebra is called spondylolisthesis. These injuries are normally seen in those who participate in sports that involve a degree of twisting and hyperextension of the spine (for example, gymnastics).
Ankle and foot injuries
Other parts of the body that can cause problems for regular exercisers are the ankles and feet. Ankle sprains are perhaps the most common of these sorts of injuries, especially for those who run and jump when they exercise. Turf toe (pain at the base of the big toe) is another well-known injury and is common for those who play sports on artificial turf. Breaks and fractures are less common but can occur as a result of trauma or severe overuse.
Knees can cause health problems for many people and knee pain is a common complaint for sports participants. There are several different causes of knee pain including:
- ligament injuries
- cartilage injuries
- meniscal tears
- dislocated kneecap.
Uncovering the root cause of knee pain is important – if left untreated it can lead to recurring issues and may impact your ability to play sports in the future.
The hips are part of our core and are central to many movements the human body makes. Common causes for pain in this area include inflammation of the joint and muscle strains. Again, these conditions can occur due to overuse and trauma. Stress fractures in the hip are another complaint – these are most prevalent in those who participate in high-impact sports, such as long-distance running.
If the sport you play involves wrist action (for example tennis or basketball), you may find yourself susceptible to wrist injuries. Sprains and tendonitis are typical examples, however, long-term conditions such as arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome can also cause problems.
Similarly to wrist injuries, sports that require a lot of arm movement also leave you susceptible to elbow pain. One of the best-known sporting injuries in this category is known as tennis elbow (official name – lateral epicondylitis). This condition involves pain over the outside of the joint and can make it difficult for the sufferer to grip objects. Despite its name, most patients with this condition don't play tennis.
Other elbow injuries include fractures from trauma and nerve compression (radial tunnel syndrome and cubital tunnel syndrome are typical examples). As with other joint injuries/conditions, if left untreated elbow pain can become a recurring issue that may affect your ability to participate in sport.
The shoulder is a complex part of the body and therefore can be the cause of many sports injuries. The rotator cuff in particular is often affected, with tendonitis of the cuff and tears seen regularly by sports therapists.
Another condition called frozen shoulder can also be a problem. This is where the joint stiffens and almost locks, inhibiting mobilisation. On the flip side of this, shoulder instability is a problem that makes the shoulder joint loose and prone to dislocation.
What will happen when I see a sports therapist?
While sports therapists may use different approaches and techniques, generally your treatment will follow this format:
- initial consultation
During your initial consultation, your sports therapist will look to find out more about you and why you are there. You may be asked some questions about your lifestyle, medical history and any other relevant information (for example previous injuries and treatment). When your therapist has detailed information about your background, they will be better able to assess you. This is also an opportunity for you to get to know the therapist better and ask any questions you may have about their experience.
This part of the process will help your sports therapist understand what your injury is and how best to treat it. The assessment may involve physical elements such as checking your posture, functional movements and ligament stability tests. Normally you will be referred to a doctor to receive an official diagnosis. Once the diagnosis has been made, the treatment can begin.
Once you have agreed on a treatment plan together, your sports therapists will carry this out. There are many different treatments that can be used and some may take a multidisciplinary approach. If you are unsure what your treatment will entail, be sure to raise this with your therapist.
Depending on the nature of your condition/injury, sports rehabilitation may be required. Rehabilitation aims to help you manage your condition until you are returned to full health (if this is viable). Your sports therapist can guide you through this, offering tips and advice to help you cope in everyday life.
Within sports therapy, the term prehabilitation relates to keeping you injury free in the future. By giving you advice and suggested exercises to carry out, your sports therapist can help you avoid the same injury in the future.
Sports therapy treatments
Sports therapy utilises a number of techniques to help ease pain and encourage recovery. While the specific treatment used will depend on the nature of your injury and your own personal history, the following techniques are commonly used:
- myofascial release
- hot/cold treatment.
Many sports therapists will be able to offer sports massage and/or remedial massage to help reduce aches and pains from training, treat soft-tissue injuries and encourage blood flow to the muscles. Within the realm of massage, there are many different techniques that are used, including:
- Effleurage – A term used to describe a series of light massage strokes that warm up the muscles before deeper work begins.
- Petrissage – A stronger technique that kneads the soft tissue to work out knots, improve blood flow and loosen muscles.
- Tapotement – This method is a rhythmic movement, usually using the side of the hand or tips of the fingers. This action is used to 'wake up' the nervous system and encourage lymphatic drainage.
- Neuromuscular techniques – Helping to treat pain, this technique involves applying concentrated pressure to muscle areas to break the cycle of spasm and pain.
- Positional release – This is a specialised technique that requires the therapist to locate the tender joint/tendon/ligament in the body and then position it in a certain way to 'release' the tension and pain.
Mobilisation is a manual therapy that is designed to help restore joint movement and range of motion in the event of joint dysfunction. The sports therapist will gently move the joint in a passive way within the limit of the joint's normal range of motion. This kind of movement needs to be very specific and gentle, so must be carried out by a qualified professional. If joint dysfunction is left untreated, it can cause muscle spasms, pain and fatigue.
Also known as soft tissue mobilisation, myofascial release is used to release tension build-up in the fascia. Fascia are sheets of fibrous tissue that surround muscles, separating them into groups. When trauma occurs, the fascia can shorten, restricting movement and blood flow.
Techniques used in myofascial release look to break up any adhesions and relax muscle tension. This helps to reduce pain and restore the normal range of movement.
Some sports therapists may use electrotherapy in your treatment. This covers a range of treatments, including TENS and laser treatment. TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) machines transmit a small electric charge to the muscles via a small patch worn on the skin. These are known to help with certain types of pain and can be used as an alternative to (or alongside) painkillers.
Hot and cold treatments are typically used for injuries to help encourage blood flow and healing. Heat treatments are normally used after the acute injury stage has passed to relax muscles and promote healing.
What is cryotherapy?
Cryotherapy is the use of extreme cold (freezing or near-freezing temperatures) in medical therapy. It’s known to destroy abnormal tissues, like warts and skin tags and can also be used to destroy some cancer cells. But cryotherapy is also commonly used in sports medicine to help treat injuries.
Research by the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports notes that this is an effective method for the treatment of soft tissue injuries, pain reduction following surgery and reducing inflammation. This might include using ice packs, ice massages or gel packs. Cryotherapy should only be carried out by a qualified professional as it can come with risks. These include frostbite and cold-induced rashes.
Qualifications and regulation
Currently, the profession of sports therapist is not legally regulated in the UK, however, several professional bodies are lobbying for regulation so this could change in the future. For now, though, there are no laws stipulating a level of training one must have in order to be called a sports therapist.
There are however some voluntary regulatory bodies that sports therapists can choose to register with (such as the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council). These bodies require members to have a certain level of training and ask therapists to abide by a code of ethics and complaints procedure.
To find out more about the various sports therapy professional bodies, please see our professional body page.