Stay in the game: Proactive physical therapy helps keep athletes on the field

January 29th, 2019

Every athlete knows that physical therapy will be a key component of getting back into the game following a significant injury, but a growing body of research suggests that for professional athletes and weekend warriors alike, physical therapy can be useful as preventative maintenance.

According to Dean Plafcan, a physical therapist with Penn State Health in State College, Pa., proactive physical therapy can help prevent injury by correcting physical imbalances and improving athletic performance. The key, he said, is seeking out medical knowledge and expertise before injury occurs.

“Consider enlisting a physical therapist or athletic trainer to look for weaknesses or imbalances in one part of the body that might be impacting other areas,” Plafcan told the website of Penn State Health. “The result of identifying problem areas and doing targeted therapy and training can be better athletic performance with less risk of pain and injury.”

Many golfers, for example, experience back pain that they attribute to the twisting necessary for a fundamentally sound swing. But in reality, a full-time desk job, followed by hours spent on the couch watching television, can leave golfers with shortened hip flexors, which places an increased burden on the lower back during a golf swing, Plafcan said. He said proactive physical therapy can correct this imbalance, reducing the risk of injury and helping the golfer drive the ball farther.

Assessment tools such as the Functional Movement Screen can help athletes identify potential problems that might go unnoticed during routine physical examinations and performance evaluations. The screening requires a physical therapist to score the patient’s physical ability during seven movement patterns that require both mobility and stability: deep squat, hurdle step, in-line lunge, active straight-leg raise, trunk stability pushup, rotary stability, and shoulder mobility.

If an athlete has a weakness in any of these areas, he might be using other muscle groups and joints to compensate, whether he is aware of it or not. That can lead to inefficient or misaligned movement and a greater chance for injury, according to Penn State Health. Once those weaknesses are identified, a physical therapist can tailor a strength program to that particular athlete.

Athletes can develop physical imbalances over time because many sports require repetitive motions that work one side of the body more than the other, like a baseball player swinging a bat or pitching from the mound. This workload imbalance between the two sides of the body can result in athletes having significantly larger muscles and thicker bones on their dominant side, Plafcan said.

“Yes, these athletes need great strength on their dominant sides to excel in their sport, but weakness on the other side of the body can lead to overcompensation and injury,” Plafcan told Penn State Health. “By targeting exercise to increase symmetry in strength and flexibility, the athlete can improve overall performance.”

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