An athletic trainer helping a patient.
Sports / Orthopedic

What’s the Difference Between Athletic Training and Physical Therapy?

Mar 24 2021
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Athletic trainers and physical therapists play different roles in sports and orthopedic medicine. Both treat and help patients recover from injuries. However, each role works a little differently and fills different patient needs.

What athletic trainers do

Athletic trainers work with athletes and people who are physically active. Their focus is on helping to prevent injuries and illnesses. They can also make suggestions to help patients get more out of their activity.

Athletic trainers often try to keep pain levels as low as possible, and they often work with doctors and physical therapists to examine and treat injuries.

Some of their main tasks include:

  • Checking out how well the musculoskeletal system functions
  • Choosing protective and rehab equipment
  • Developing treatment plans based on a patient’s goals and needs
  • Educating patients about home care
  • Evaluating progress and changing treatment as needed
  • Providing emergency treatment for injuries
  • Providing therapeutic treatments for injuries and disease
  • Reviewing the patient’s medical history

What physical therapists do

Like athletic trainers, physical therapists see sports and orthopedic patients. However, they don’t just work with people who are active. They treat patients of all ages, interests and fitness levels.

Physical therapists can also diagnose and treat injuries. In addition to athletes, they might help elderly people recover from medical conditions or injuries. They receive extensive training to become movement experts.

Some of their main tasks include:

  • Assessing if the treatment plan is working and changing it as needed
  • Evaluating other issues like balance problems and strength issues
  • Getting the patient moving to improve function and mobility
  • Reviewing the patient’s medical history
  • Using targeted therapies to lessen pain and reduce disability

The three major differences

When they work, where they work and how they work. Those are three major differences between athletic trainers and physical therapists.

Athletic trainers often work in educational settings. They also work in medical settings, in fitness centers and for sports teams. They typically work hours like weekends and nights so that they’re available during athletic practices and games.

Physical therapists usually work in a medical setting. They might also work in a private office or nursing home. Some also provide in-home care for their patients.

  • Athletic trainers are usually first on the scene of a team sport-related injury and are involved in care during the athletic season.
  • Athletic trainers focus on preventing injuries.
  • Physical therapists come in when patients are ready to begin rehab and are involved in long-term care.
  • Physical therapists focus on rehabilitating injuries.

When should you see an athletic trainer

If you’re an athlete, you might see an athletic trainer if you get injured while playing a sport. You might also see a trainer if you’ve been diagnosed with a condition or disease.

They can help manage your symptoms or get you ready to return to physical activities. Meeting with an athletic trainer before any injuries occur can also help you with tips to prevent injuries too.

Reasons to see an athletic trainer include:

  • Bleeding wounds
  • Decreased range of motion in a body part or joint
  • Lessening tolerance for physical activity
  • Muscle or joint pain/swelling

When should you see a physical therapist

In some cases, your provider might suggest that you see a physical therapist to help you recover from an injury or an illness. For example, after a heart attack, many people must go to cardiac rehab.

Other reasons people see physical therapists include:

  • Arthritis
  • Balance problems
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Lower back pain
  • Neck pain
  • Recovering from cancer, a stroke or a head injury
  • Strengthening before and/or after surgery

Both athletic trainers and physical therapists work hard to help their patients regain mobility. They also give them tools to live an active, healthy life.

Here at Bon Secours, we have some of the finest athletic trainers and physical therapists in the region. Learn more about the orthopedics and sports medicine services we offer.


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