What is the difference between sports medicine and physical therapy?

sports-clinic-soccerSports medicine and physical therapy are frequently confused for being the same thing. Understandably so since both focus on healing injuries of the muscles and bones. However, sports medicine and physical therapy have distinct differences.

First and foremost, 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 a fellowship. A physician who practices sports medicine is a fully-licensed physician who can diagnose and prescribe medications. He or she has chosen this field as a specialty and much of their day-to-day patients are being seen for sports related injuries and conditions. Although some sports medicine specialists may provide some hands-one therapies, a significant portion of the practice may involve ordering diagnostic tests 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 sports related injuries.

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. However, many physical therapists have many hours of experience providing physical therapy as an assistant before becoming credentialed. Physical therapy can be prescribed for a wide array of injuries and disorders, not only sports-related ailments. Physical therapy focuses on healing with non-invasive techniques. Arguably, physical therapy is a more hands-on approach as compared to sports medicine simply because the nature of the specialty – therapy involves assessing a patient’s current physical abilities, helping the patient learn appropriate physical therapy techniques, ensuring that the patient can practice techniques on their own and then reassessing the patient’s progress. Essentially, physical therapists are able to see the natural progression of healing while working with a patient over a length of time.

Inevitably, if one has a concern regarding any part of the skeletal system, an orthopedic surgeon may be the first choice since they specialize in disorders of the bone. A sports medicine physician is likely the best option for a sports-related injury, and ultimately, he or she may recommend physical therapy as part of the treatment plan. Once a diagnosis is made by a medical doctor, the patient and doctor can discuss the treatment options available.

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