If you have a condition or injury that you’re seeking treatment for, you might be comparing two different options: sports medicine and physical therapy. While health professionals in these practices treat many of the same things, there are some distinctions between the two! This article will cover what sports medicine and physical therapy are, why you might want to seek help, and how to choose between the two. 

What is Sports Medicine?

Sports medicine is a branch of medicine that helps treat and prevent injuries in active people. Some sports medicine providers work with specific age groups or sport-specific patients. You will see physically active adults, young athletes, professional athletes, and people who work in physically demanding jobs seeking care from sports medicine doctors. Sports medicine specialists may treat anyone of any fitness level. 

Some standard exams and treated injuries include:

  • Joint injury diagnosis (through arthroscopy)
  • Musculoskeletal ultrasounds
  • Orthotic prescriptions
  • Joint replacement
  • Concussion management
  • Achilles, labral, meniscus, and rotator cuff tears
  • Ankle sprains
  • Stress fractures

What is Physical Therapy?

Physical therapy is a branch of medicine that helps restore functional movements. Unlike occupational therapists, who help people with daily activities like brushing their teeth, getting dressed, etc., physical therapists focus on functional movements like standing, walking, balancing, and so on. Physical therapists can also help with proper movement and mobility. 

Some standard exams and treated injuries include:

  • Back and neck pain
  • Carpal tunnel
  • Joint replacement
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Achilles, labral, meniscus, and rotator cuff tears
  • Ankle sprains

sports medicine doctor helping a patient with recovery exercises

Reasons You Might See a Sports Medicine Physician or Physical Therapist

You might be looking for a sports medicine physician or a physical therapist for various reasons. If you’re unsure whether or not you should see a sports medicine physician or physical therapist, see if you relate to any of the following:

Acute Injury

If you’ve obtained a sudden injury, a sports medicine specialist or physical therapist can help you determine exactly what’s injured, equipped with a proper recovery plan. 

Chronic Injury

Chronic injuries are ones you’ve had for a long time that don’t resolve on their own. A sports medicine doctor or physical therapist can identify and correct the sports training errors or natural biomechanical constraints that your body has. Without treatment, chronic injuries from these causes may persist.

Prevent Injury

Sports medicine and physical therapy treatment can both be used as preventive medicine. You might seek help if you have a history of past injuries, are active, or want to improve your posture and/or overall body awareness.

Enhance Performance

If you’re just starting a new fitness program or are a full-blown athlete, a sports medicine specialist can help you level up your athletic performance. By combining preventative care and strengthening exercises, you can add a boost to your performance potential.

Which One Should You Choose?

Now that you’ve determined whether or not you could benefit from seeing a sports medicine specialist or physical therapist, you might ask yourself which one you should choose! Besides the fact that sports medicine specialists often focus on working with physically active people, there is another big difference between the two. Sports medicine specialists can offer various treatment options, including surgery. Physical therapy can be used in cases where surgery isn’t needed or to foster recovery after surgery. 

If you’re still unsure about which service you should choose, here are questions you can ask yourself:

  1. Do you have a physically demanding job like being a massage therapist, nurse, waitress, or construction worker? 
  2. Do you have hobbies that keep you active, such as skiing, running, cycling, kayaking, yoga, etc.?
  3. Do you exercise on a regular basis?
  4. Do you have a sports-related injury?
  5. Do you have an injury that may need surgery?
  6. Are you recovering from a non-sport-related injury, or have you been injured in an accident?
  7. Do you struggle with functional movements, such as standing up or bending over?
  8. Do you have a limited range of movement?
  9. Do you have stiffness, joint pain, or back pain?
  10.  Do you experience headaches regularly?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you could benefit from seeing a sports medicine specialist or a physical therapist. If most of your “yes” answers were for questions 1-5, a sports medicine specialist might be the best fit for you. If you answered “yes” to more questions in the 6-10 range, a physical therapist could be your best fit. 

Every person has different needs and desires for their treatment plan. Ultimately the decision is yours when it comes to your health! We hope this information was helpful in seeing the differences between sports medicine and physical therapy. 

If you are looking to be treated by a sports medicine specialist, our physicians at ISMI are happy to help you! Contact us today to schedule an appointment.