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How is Sports Medicine Different from Physical Therapy?

Sports medicine patients may need physical therapy

In sports medicine, patients often need activity modification and they might require physical therapy. However, not every person that comes into a sports medicine clinic definitely needs physical therapy and some might need more serious intervention such as surgery. Physical therapy is just one of the treatment modalities that could be used to treat patients with a sports medicine injury.

Sports medicine and physical therapy are frequently confused as being the same thing. This is understandable, since both focus on healing injuries of the muscles and bones. Despite the similarities between the two, there are distinct differences between sports medicine and physical therapy.

What is sports medicine? 

In order to practice sports medicine, one must have a medical degree and additional required post-graduate medical education such as a residency and/or fellowship training. A physician practicing sports medicine is a fully-licensed physician who can diagnose and prescribe medications. He or she has chosen this field as a specialty and many of their day-to-day patients are being seen for sports related injuries and conditions. A significant portion of a sports medicine practice involves diagnostic testing such as X-rays and MRIs, diagnosing injuries and disorders, referring patients to sub-specialists, referring patients to physical therapists for specialized therapy, performing in-office procedures, and, prescribing medications to treat injuries.

This branch of medicine deals primarily with physical wellness and the treatment and prevention of sports or exercise related injuries. Sports medicine physicians treat injuries such as muscle, ligament, tendon and bone problems. They may also treat chronic illnesses that can affect physical performance such as asthma and diabetes. Common sports injuries include a concussion, muscle cramps, ACL sprains, ACL tears, ankle sprains, shin splints and muscle strains.

What is physical therapy?

Physical therapy is provided by a physical therapist that has achieved the requisite education and satisfied the requirements for the state in which he or she practices. A physical therapist does not need to attend medical school, but they do need to get their doctoral degree in physical therapy. Many physical therapists have significant experience providing physical therapy as an assistant before becoming credentialed. Physical therapists provide care and help to injured or ill people to improve their movement and manage their pain.

These therapists are often a part of the rehabilitation, treatment, and prevention of patients with chronic conditions, illnesses or injuries. Physical therapy can be prescribed for a wide array of injuries and disorders, not only sports related ailments. Physical therapy focuses more on healing with non-invasive techniques, and is a more hands-on approach compared to sports medicine, simply because of the nature of the specialty.


Essentially, physical therapists are able to see the natural progression of healing while working with a patient over a length of time. Sports rehabilitation involves the restoration of function and advanced athletic skills, and helps you to regain your athletic skills that were lost to injury. A physical therapist will perform the initial rehabilitation process. While there are a number of similarities between the type of care that physical therapists and sports medicine doctors provide, there are also many things that differentiate the two.