A person lifting another person Description automatically generated with low confidence
Shot of a young man visiting his physiotherapist for a rehabilitation session

Physiotherapy and sports therapy are both forms of treatment that help restore and improve the movement and function of a person’s body, especially after injury or illness. However, the two branches of healthcare are often very different, especially in terms of targets and goals for rehabilitation.

The first difference between the two is that physiotherapy aims to rehabilitate patients and improve their health so they can perform everyday tasks and feel comfortable at home and work. In contrast, sports therapy takes things a step further by rehabilitating patients for a specific sporting activity that often requires more targeted and advanced conditioning.

Physiotherapy is typically viewed as a broader health treatment for patients, as practitioners must have knowledge and skills covering many illnesses and issues. While sports therapists will also have extensive knowledge, they are more focused on injuries and rehabilitation in sporting environments.

What is physiotherapy?

Physiotherapy is practiced in the US by physical therapists with a National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE) license, though the exact requirements can vary by state. These physiotherapists are trained in various treatments, including musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, and neurological issues. They understand how to treat problems that patients struggle with, such as muscle strains and back complaints to degenerative conditions common in older people.

Physiotherapy helps individuals with these problems to get better through exercise, movement, and manual therapy such as massages and heat treatment. This can be used to improve the health conditions of patients with problems with bones, joints, and muscles, as well as the lungs and the nervous system. Physiotherapy involves education and advice about best practices for lifting, carrying, and daily tasks.

What is sports therapy?

Sports therapy is tightly focused on the musculoskeletal system and ensuring bones, joints, tendons, and muscles are in peak condition to allow patients to perform at a high level in a particular sport. In addition to providing immediate care for disorders, sports therapy is often preventative with exercises designed to optimize performance.

The Society of Sports Therapists (SST) outlines five key areas of sports therapy. These are “prevention,” “recognition and evaluation,” “management, treatment and referral,” “rehabilitation,” and “education.” As you can see, there are overlaps with physiotherapy, but sports therapy is explicitly geared toward sports environments. Sports therapists often work with athletes at the elite level of sports like football and basketball.

They also are likely to have a vast level of knowledge, even though they concentrate on sports therapy. Jordan Sudberg is an example of a medical doctor with an extensive background in physical medicine and therapy who now specializes in sports therapy. Sudberg is certified and trained in Nerve Conduction Studies and worked as a research scientist before taking on the role of Medical Director and CEO at Spine and Sports Rehabilitation.

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What are the main differences?

The primary difference between sports therapy and physiotherapy is that the former uses sports science with physical and mental processes to prepare people to participate in sports training and matches. At the same time, the latter is centered on rehabilitation to prepare patients for work and daily life. Sports therapy also helps patients of any age return to exercise, whether playing a sport at the grassroots level or merely going for a daily run.

For this reason, it can be argued that sports therapy is more concerned with the physical aspects of conditioning compared to physiotherapy, which is more medical in nature. Physiotherapists work in hospitals and other environments where they can, for example, help a patient to overcome a heart attack or chronic back pain. They are usually more involved in the initial rehab after these problems.

In contrast, sports therapists specialize in injuries rather than serious medical conditions. They will apply certain physiotherapy skills, usually musculoskeletal, in sports-driven environments and for sports-related health goals and objectives. Physiotherapists, on the other hand, can aid with neurology, cardiovascular and respiratory problems.

However, while they are different, there are many overlapping concepts and processes between physiotherapy and sports therapy. Both professions focus on the individual with a course of treatment that will ease pain and help them to get back to full fitness. They both assess issues and provide a diagnosis and advice. Some physiotherapists excel in sports therapy and vice versa.

That means there isn’t always a clear-cut decision for whether a patient should see a physiotherapist or sports therapist. However, the former is the obvious option for general medical issues and problems. Physiotherapy improves the quality of life, while sports therapy improves fitness and conditioning for a specific sport. There are subtle nuances and differences between the two, but both aim to help patients get back to full health and to prevent further problems.