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Physiotherapist vs Sports Therapist: Which one is right for you?

Physio treatment and sports therapy are both known to treat musculoskeletal injuries and disorders. They both use hands-on techniques, approach health holistically, and take into account the interrelationship of all parts of the body, muscles, nerves, and even the mind.

Nevertheless, these two types of practitioners are not the same, especially when it comes to training, approach, and experience. When experiencing pain or injury, it’s important to find the best treatment from the most appropriate source.

In this guide, we will go over the history, training, and expertise of physiotherapists and sports physiotherapists. Both share many of the same practices and focuses, and they both aim to restore movement, relieve pain, and help your body get back to its full potential. However, physio treatments and sports physios can still provide different forms of care. One may be better than the other when it comes to your specific injury or condition.

So, sports therapist vs physiotherapist. What’s the difference, and which one is best for me?

Similarities between sports therapy and physio treatment

When asking about sports therapy vs physiotherapy, it’s best to start by looking at the similarities. Both practitioners are experienced and highly trained professionals who are qualified to treat disorders surrounding the musculoskeletal system - the bones, muscles, joints, tendons, nerves, ligaments, and soft tissues that work together to provide the body with support, movement, and protection.

When this system is thrown off balance, through injury or disease, the whole body is affected, and doing everyday tasks may become difficult or impossible. A physiotherapist and a sports physiotherapist will both aim to heal the body and relieve pain by:

  • Assessing the body and diagnosing through an all-encompassing approach

  • Providing advice on how to improve health and how to avoid further injury

  • Recommending stretches and exercises that can improve mobility and relieve pain

  • Creating and delivering a rehabilitation plan that leads to physical independence and recovery

  • Educating patients on how to reduce the risk of injury and how to manage pain

Physiotherapists and sports therapists may use similar treatments to relieve pain and create a path toward boosting your quality of life. They can help improve the ability to move and function without pain by using non-invasive tactics. Some of these treatments may include:

  • Targeted exercises and stretches that improve movement and strength

  • Joint mobilisation

  • Soft tissue manipulation

  • Dry needling and acupuncture

  • Electrotherapy using ultrasound or TENS machines

  • Taping or strapping to treat pain in the ankles, wrists, and shoulders

  • Deep tissue massage

These techniques may be used in the rehabilitation process of any acute (short term) or chronic (long term) pain by sports or physiotherapy. The main differences between these therapies are instead found in their end goals and expertise.

What is a physiotherapist?

A physiotherapist is a healthcare professional who uses physical methods to treat deformity, disease, or injury. They tend to work within the NHS or in private practices and aim to restore movement and function through a variety of treatment modalities, such as soft tissue releases, dry needling, joint mobilisation, joint manipulation, electrotherapy modalities, cryotherapy, and ultimately specific exercises catered for the diagnosis at hand. Physiotherapy is a regulated profession. That means that after studying and achieving a university degree after three years, they will still need to register with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) before they can start practising. Their study will have focused on musculoskeletal conditions, but they will also be trained to look at the whole body when assessing, diagnosing, and treating.

Their main goal is to improve their patients’ health, mobility, and independence. Physiotherapy treatment is vital in treating respiratory, cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, and neurological conditions such as recovery after a stroke or managing Parkinson’s disease.

This kind of therapy is safe for all ages, it’s non-invasive, and excludes the use of any heavy medication. A physiotherapist will use their hands, introduce exercises, or use electro-modalities to encourage the body to heal itself. They also take into account any psychological, mental, or social factors that may be impacting your health. They can give advice on ways to reduce stress, show exercise techniques to maintain better posture or weight, or use heat or cold therapy to improve blood flow, decrease pain, and encourage healing processes.

What is sports therapy?

Sports therapists are similar to physiotherapists in that they are also expert healthcare professionals intent on healing and treating musculoskeletal disorders. They will get their degree after three years of specialized studying on musculoskeletal conditions. Although the profession is unregulated, their degree ensures that they have received a comprehensive knowledge of sports-focused massage techniques and rehabilitation, with up to 200 hours of on-the-job training.

Once they have their degree, a sports therapist can work in a number of places. They may work in health centres or gyms, or they may support a sports team or athlete. They can work with anyone who wants support while training, regardless of their level of experience.

Sports therapy will utilise both physiological and pathological means to prepare a patient for competition, work, or training. They will use sports principles and exercise science to help prevent injury and rehabilitate the body back to full function and sports-specific fitness. Some tactics may include muscle strengthening exercises, stretching, soft tissue manipulation, biomechanical assessments, laser therapy, acupuncture, ad ultrasound therapy.

A sports therapist will have the skill to optimise sports performance through injury prevention, rehabilitation programs, and exercise preparation. They will treat immediate injuries and support patients in any kind of environment, be it training, competitive, or recreational.

There are five duties that sports therapists will aim to achieve with each patient:

  • Recognition and assessment of any injuries

  • Management and treatment through personalised plans and referrals to specialists

  • Rehabilitation through treatment techniques

  • Tracking progress and rehabilitation

  • Prevention of injuries

What are the key differences between sports therapy and physio?

When looking at sports therapy vs physiotherapy, it’s easy to find similarities. The names of these practices are often used interchangeably, and the overlap in treatment techniques has made many confused about what the actual differences are.

Much of this confusion lies in the fact that a sports therapist, while not a physiotherapist, will employ physiotherapy techniques to treat injuries. One distinction that can help differentiate the two is that sports physiotherapy is generally more accommodating to sporting environments. While a physiotherapist will be able to treat and rehabilitate the same injuries that a sports therapist can treat, sports therapists may be a better option for those who want to return to exercise and strenuous physical activity as soon as possible.

Physiotherapists tend to have an overarching understanding of the body and its illnesses. They are able to treat a broad range of patients with complex issues. Sports therapists are more sports-focused and generally receive patients who exist in a sporting environment.

When should you see a sports therapist?

Sports therapists are able to give the treatments of a physiotherapist with a sports focus. Because of this, there are many reasons to see a sports therapist over a physiotherapist.

If you are concerned about receiving a sports injury in the future, it would be ideal to see a sports therapist to receive a specialised strengthening program. They can help condition your muscles for a specific sport and use exercises that boost power, speed, endurance, and flexibility. You may be encouraged to train on specific muscle groups that will be used the most during your sport.

You may also need to see a sports therapist for a sports massage if you suffer from tight calf muscles, sprains, or tense shoulders like from weight lifting or running. This deep tissue massage is focused on a specific area and can be very painful. Sports massage can help prevent future injury, relieve pain, and regain normal soft tissue and muscle flexibility.

A sports therapist may also be able to provide specific nutritional advice and customised meal plans. They should have a better understanding of what a body needs while doing a specific sport and be able to aid you in achieving your goals.

Which one is best for me? Physiotherapy or sports therapy?

Physiotherapy and sports therapy are similar in almost everything aside from the end goals. A physiotherapist’s rehabilitation goal may be for their patients to be able to live their day-to-day lives without experiencing pain. A sports therapist’s goals differ in that their goal for their patients is to have them return to their sporting activities with a sustained or stronger physical ability. Both can be beneficial and get you on the right path to a pain-free life. It depends on your specific conditions and goals.

Some physiotherapists specialise in sports rehabilitation and use sports therapy techniques. Many sports therapists will approach an injury and rehabilitation the same way a physiotherapist would. If you are unsure about what is best for you and your situation, don’t hesitate to ask!

Ultra Sports Clinic is a sports injury clinic in London with an expert team that can provide physio treatment, ultrasound diagnostic services, and sports massage. Call us at +44 (0)203 893 5100 or click here to book your appointment online!



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